Hearing loss, or deafness, is the partial or total inability to hear sound in one or both ears.
The human ear is amazing. It is one of the smallest and most complex organs in the body, capable of turning the tiniest disturbances in air molecules into a form the brain can understand - and doing so instantaneously, over an enormous range of pitch and loudness. Considering the ear's delicacy, it is remarkably resilient. Nevertheless, illness or injury can impair our ability to hear properly.
In recent years, substantial advances have made it possible to determine the cause of hearing impairment in nearly all cases, and to treat the hearing loss in many ears.
About The Ear
The ear is divided into three major parts:
- The outer ear
- The middle ear
- The inner ear
The outer ear has two parts:
- The trumpet-shaped, protruding part of the ear on each side of the head, called the auricle or
- The tube leading into the ear, called the
auditory canal; the opening is called the meatus
In the middle ear:
The middle-ear chamber is filled with air. There is an opening from the middle ear to the throat through a tube called the
A chain of three small bones, called
The inner ear is a fluid-filled chamber divided into two parts:
vestibular labyrinth, which is the portion of the inner ear that functions as part of the body's balance mechanism.
cochlea, which contains the hearing-sensing nerve.
The cochlea is a hollow tube inside the inner ear that is coiled to resemble a snail's shell. It contains thiin fluid and a highly specialized structure called the
It is to the cochlea that sound vibrations picked up by the middle ear are carried.
How Do We Hear?
Hearing involves a complex chain reaction within the ear:
- Sound creates vibrations in the air somewhat similar to the rippling waves created when a stone is thrown into a pond.
- The outer-ear "trumpet" collects these sound waves, and they are funneled down the external ear canal to the eardrum.
- As the sound waves strike the eardrum, they cause it to vibrate.
- The vibrations are transmitted through the middle ear over the bony bridge formed by the hammer, anvil, and stirrup.
- These vibrations, in turn, cause the membranes over the openings to the inner ear to vibrate, causing the fluid in the inner ear to be set in motion.
- The motion of the fluid in the inner ear excites the nerve cells in theorgan of Corti, producing electrochemical impulses that are gathered together and transmitted to the brain along the acoustic nerve.
- As the impulses reach the brain, we experience the sensation of hearing.
The sensitivity of the hearing mechanism is most extraordinary. With the softest detectable sound, the eardrum only moves approximately one-millionth of an inch. Our ability to detect sounds from the softest to the loudest covers an intensity range of approximately 100,000,000 to 1.
What we hear are sound waves provided by vibrations of air molecules. The size and energy of these waves determine the loudness, which is measured in decibels (db). The number of vibrations or cycles per second makes up frequency - the more vibrations, the higher the pitch of the sound. Sound frequency is expressed in cycles per second, or hertz (Hz).
Many young, healthy humans (through teens and early twenties) can hear frequencies from about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, and can detect frequency differences as small as 0.2%. That is, we can tell the difference between a sound of 1000 Hz, and one of 1002 Hz.
Consequently, it is no surprise that such a remarkably complex system can be damaged by various illnesses and injuries.
How Does Hearing Loss Affect One's Life?
Virtually no condition in medicine can have as profound an effect on quality of life as even moderate hearing loss in some people.
Hearing loss makes even routine communication difficult. High frequency hearing loss often involves loss of ability to hear consonants such as s, f, t, and z, even though vowels can be heard normally. Consequently, people hear but cannot make out what is being said.
This may result in frustration, withdrawal from social activities, depression, and marital discord. People lose the ability to take in the sounds like bird songs, rustling of leaves, and the voices of children. In general, these infringements on the quality of life can be overcome through medical or surgical treatment or with hearing aids.
When hearing loss occurs early in childhood, its devastating consequences are more obvious than when it occurs late in life. A hearing deficit in infants can interfere with psychological, emotional, and speech development. It also makes learning a mammoth task and can cause frustration or isolation.
Even more mild forms of hearing loss early in life can cause great difficulties, including poor attention and bad grades in school. Frequently, such children are considered "not too bright," before anyone realizes that a hearing loss is present. When it is corrected, the changes in the child's performance, attitude, and interactions are often remarkable.
Facts About Hearing Loss