Man holding hand to ear struggling to hear

Your odds of acquiring hearing loss at some point in your life are regrettably quite high, even more so as you grow older. In the US, 48 million individuals report some extent of hearing loss, including almost two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.

That’s why it’s crucial to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the signs and symptoms and take precautionary actions to reduce damage to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to concentrate on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.

The three forms of hearing loss

In general, there are three types of hearing loss:

  1. Conductive hearing loss
  2. Sensorineural hearing loss
  3. Mixed hearing loss (a combination of conductive and sensorineural)

Conductive hearing loss is less common and is caused by some kind of obstruction in the outer or middle ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and genetic malformations of the ear.

However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.

Sensorineural hearing loss

This form of hearing loss is the most common and accounts for about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It is triggered by injury to the hair cells (the nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves running from the inner ear to the brain.

With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter the external ear, strike the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, as a result of damage to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is presented to the brain for processing is diminished.

This diminished signal is perceived as muffled or faint and usually impacts speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, contrary to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is usually permanent and cannot be corrected with medication or surgery.

Causes and symptoms

Sensorineural hearing loss has a number of potential causes, including:

  • Genetic disorders
  • Family history of hearing loss
  • Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
  • Head trauma
  • Benign tumors
  • Exposure to loud noise
  • Aging (presbycusis)

The final two, exposure to loud noise and aging, constitute the most widespread causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news as it suggests that most cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t prevent aging, of course, but you can regulate the collective exposure to sound over your lifetime).

To fully grasp the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing usually comes about very slowly. Therefore, the symptoms progress so slowly and gradually that it can be near impossible to perceive.

A small measure of hearing loss every year will not be very detectable to you, but after a number of years it will be very apparent to your family and friends. So even though you may believe everybody is mumbling, it might be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look for:

  • Difficulty understanding speech
  • Problems following conversions, particularly with more than one person
  • Turning up the TV and radio volume to excess levels
  • Regularly asking other people to repeat themselves
  • Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
  • Feeling exceedingly tired at the end of the day

If you notice any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you may have hearing loss, it’s best to book a hearing test. Hearing tests are quick and painless, and the sooner you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to preserve.

Prevention and treatment

Sensorineural hearing loss is mostly preventable, which is great news since it is without question the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the US could be averted by implementing some simple protective measures.

Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially damage your hearing with long-term exposure.

As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. As a result, at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could harm your hearing.

Here are some tips on how you can reduce the risk of hearing loss:

  • Implement the 60/60 rule – when listening to a portable music player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume. Additionally, consider purchasing noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
  • Shield your ears at concerts – concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, far above the limit of safe volume (you could injure your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that preserve the quality of the music.
  • Protect your ears in the workplace – if you work in a high-volume profession, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
  • Safeguard your hearing at home – Several household and leisure activities generate high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.

If you currently have hearing loss, all hope is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can dramatically improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can forestall any further consequences of hearing loss.

If you suspect you might have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!

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