Special Report: Hearing Loss
Hearing loss can occur at any time. As you age, hearing loss (presbycusis) is a fact of life. Sometimes, hearing loss occurs prematurely at a younger age due to loud noises that are sustained over a long period of time. This is not the natural progression of hearing loss but an accelerated condition caused by environmental conditions we impose on ourselves.
The human ear is a delicate instrument. The parts that make up your system of hearing safeguard it against dangerous noise levels in most cases. When the noise factor gets ahead of the internal safety measures, the ear is damaged beyond repair.
In this report, you will learn about hearing loss and how important it is to turn down the volume. Teach your family, especially your children how to protect their ears from premature hearing loss which will follow them the rest of their lives.
THE ANATOMY OF HEARING: The Human Ear
The human ear has three main parts: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. The outer ear is the portion of the ear that you can see. It consists of the large auricle. This is the top portion of the ear that is supported by cartilage. The part that hangs down is the lobule or ear lobe. The sound travels through the opening of the ear called the external acoustic meatus.
As you travel inward the parts of the ear become more delicate. The outer and middle ear is separated by a window of tissue called the tympanic membrane or eardrum. The eardrum protects the delicate bones of the middle ear from dirt, dust and other foreign substances that can affect how the bones work. The bony structure of the middle ear consists of three bones: the malleus, the incus and the stapes. You may know them more commonly as the hammer, the anvil and the stirrups. These names were adopted for the bones because of their shape in the ear.
The bottom of the stapes covers the oval window. Beyond the oval window is the entrance into the inner ear. The inner ear consists of a fluid filled environment within a network of tubes called the semicircular canals. This labyrinth looks like a giant snail in its shell. The coiled portion is called the cochlea. The cochlea is filled with fluid that moves back and forth over tiny hair cells. The semicircular canal and the cochlea are connected by an area called the vestibule which would be like the body of the snail.
The hair cells of the cochlea are what do the actual “hearing.” Sound vibrations are sent by these hair cells as electrical nerve impulses to the brain via the auditory nerve. The brain interprets the impulses and sound that you can then recognize.
How well can you hear now? The unit of measure for sound is called a decibel (dB). The normal range of hearing for the human ear is quite extensive. The lowest sound on the decibel scale is at 0 dB. The loudest is around 150 dB.
Normal conversation registers on the decibel scale at around 60 dB. If you can hear someone talking unaided then you have hearing at least at that decibel level. A whisper registers at 10 dB. Most people can hear a whisper without any problem.
As you age, this range of hearing will narrow. You may be able to hear normal conversation but not a whisper. Hearing tests are recommended annually to test the level of your hearing and detect any problems. These tests are quite simple and are done in the doctor’s office.
They will give you a set of large earphones to put on which are attached to a machine. The machine will produce sounds from a variety of levels on the decibel scale. You’ll signal by raising your hand or shaking your head when you can hear any sounds at all. The doctor may ask you to cover one ear and see how well you hear his voice. You’ll repeat the task covering the opposite ear.
Annual hearing tests can track if there has been any hearing loss since the last exam. If the doctor notices that you are experiencing hearing loss, he may send you to see an audiologist for further testing. An audiologist can test your hearing and determine what type of hearing loss you have sustained.
On the other end of the decibel scale are louder sounds that we can hear but should not be exposed to for long periods of time. The lawnmower can produce a loud racket when you are cutting the grass. This sound registers at around 90 dB. The sound of gunshots comes in at about 140 dB. Just below that is the level of noise at a concert which has been measured at around 115 dB.
We have all heard loud sounds before. They may even have hurt our ears. Driving by a jackhammer on a city street or standing on the corner when the ambulance came by blaring its horn are facts of life. The difference is that our exposure is only for a moment and not enough to affect hearing on a permanent basis.
Sustained exposure to loud sounds leads to permanent hearing loss. It has been determined that listening to any noise or sound around 85 decibels for longer than an 90 minutes at a time will produce steady loss of hearing. As the level of noise increases, the exposure time before permanent damage decreases. When you reach decibel levels over 100, the time is cut to less than fifteen minutes of regular exposure.
HEARING LOSS: Types of Hearing Loss
There are two basic types of hearing loss related to how we hear: Conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss concerns the structures that conduct sound waves from the outside environment through the three parts of the ear.
There are many places in the ear where sound could be getting blocked. The outer ear could be damaged; the tympanic membrane (eardrum) may be damaged or blocked with fluid; the bones of the middle ear can become immovable; the middle ear cavity can become filled with disease. For whatever reason, the sound is not reaching its intended destination.
Sensorineural hearing loss occurs in the inner ear. Once sound reaches the inner ear it is conducted as vibrations through the fluid in the bony framework. Tiny hair cells in the cochlea turn these vibrations into electrical impulses that travel to the brain via the auditory nerves. The hair cells can become damaged and that impairs their ability to transmit sound. The nerves can also be damaged in some way so that even if the hair cells are intact, electrical impulses never reach the brain.
Some even have mixed hearing loss. It is a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing deficiencies. The hearing loss is present in the same ear.
Society and Hearing Loss
We live in a society that brings the noise. Bigger seems to always be better and that includes sound. Jackhammers on the street, drills used in construction, concerts at various venues and even televisions in the home are all turning up the volume on our lives.
One noisy culprit associated with hearing loss is music. There are musical concerts, huge speakers in the car and personal listening devices like mp3 players. The distance between your ears and the music is important when considering the affect that loud music has on you.
As we said before, when you encounter sounds around 85 decibels, your contact with that sound is limited to about 90 minutes at a time. On average rock concerts and occupational noises from machinery register much higher on the decibel scale. Your ears can literally hurt from exposure to these noises for prolonged periods of time.
Have you ever been at a concert and when the music starts you put your hands over your ears from the shock? After a few minutes, you lower your hands and unleash the music on your ears. After the concert, your ears seem to be numb because you can’t hear a thing that anyone is saying. It eventually goes away, or does it?
Portable musical devices like mp3 players are at the height of their popularity. Instead of just listening to music in the car or using a CD player that skips every time you take a step, kids and adults are walking, working and exercising to music on their mp3s. For better sound, the earphones developed nowadays do not fit outside your ear but directly in the ear canal. The sound is more crisp and clear. Unfortunately it is also quite damaging.
The amount of time spent listening to an mp3 player each day is more than that. And, the volume is sometimes higher than it needs to be. Often, the music level is turned up to drown out background noises. It’s nice to get the full effect of the music but the sound exposure could be killing your ears.
There is concern by doctors that all of this loud music is making young people progressively deaf at a younger age. By the time they are elderly, they may experience complete deafness. Musicians are not exempt. They may not tell reveal it to the public but many performers sustain profound hearing loss from all of their years of playing loud music with unprotected ears.
EDUCATING KIDS/TEENS ABOUT TURNING DOWN THE VOLUME
This slogan used by Verizon Wireless is quite appropriate for the generation of today that thrives on loud sound. Listening to stereos in the car, in the home and with mp3 devices has driven the daily decibel levels your ears tolerate to dangerous levels. If you kids don’t realize that they are damaging the delicate hair cells in their inner ear it, is up to parents to educate them on the very real results of this behavior.
Once hearing has been damaged, the hair cells do not regenerate. This is an important point. After you experience noise-induced hearing loss, there is no going back. Special hearing devices like hearing aids or surgically implanted hearing aids are your options for regaining some level of normal hearing again.
Hearing loss impairs the ability to do many things. For instance, if you can’t hear, you can’t drive a car. How will you hear emergency vehicles coming or someone blowing their horn to alert you of danger? You put yourself and others at risk. Talking on the phone won’t be the same. If you can’t hear, you’ll need a special machine to answer all your calls.
These are just a few examples that you can relay to your kids about the effects of hearing loss. Bring the situation down to their level of understanding with things that affect their reality. It puts the importance of hearing into perspective for them.
Learn how to recognize if hearing loss is affecting your child. The most obvious sign is also the most frustrating one. When you talk to your kids, they may answer you with a distracted, “Huh?” in the presence of any type of hearing loss; you’ll hear that response more often than not.
Constantly repeating yourself around them is cause for concern. Does your child wear their iPod or other mp3 player all the time? Check the level at which they are listening to their music. If you can hear their music even when they have their earphones in, the sound is definitely too loud.
Kids who experience hearing loss may become withdrawn socially. Because they have a hard time hearing what others are saying, they feel embarrassed. Instead of taking the chance that they will misunderstand and give a wrong response, they would rather not mingle with friends at all. If your child has become suddenly withdrawn, hearing loss may be the answer when coupled with other signs.
Do your teens complain of ringing in the ears or other sounds? This is also a sign that there is something wrong with their hearing. Feeling pressure in the ears is not uncommon. See a doctor right away to have their hearing tested.
Don’t be fooled by the signs. Hearing loss can occur at different rates in different people. Ringing in the ears could signify rapid hearing loss or a progressive turn in that direction. Either way, it is a warning that something needs to be done to prevent further damage.
Methods to Save Hearing
Your kids want to listen to their music. Maybe you are the one listening to the mp3 player. You don’t have to stop listening to your music in order to save your hearing. Give your kids and yourself options for musical enjoyment that are safe. There are alternatives to playing it loud all day.
Wear ear protection. This goes for machine operators and attendees at music concerts. You may have seen those large earphones worn by the men and women on the tarmac at airports. They are preventing hearing loss from the airplane engines as they rev up.
You don’t have to wear those large earphones. At a concert, wearing earplugs lowers the decibel level that is reaching your inner ear. You can still hear the music but it won’t be as loud. Another alternative at concerts is to choose seating as far back as possible. Most venues have those jumbotrons set up so you won’t miss anything going down on stage.
Put your fingers in your ears. Loud sounds can happen upon us. Maybe your kid jumps in the car with a friend who turns their stereo up. If they won’t turn it down, cover your ears to protect them. The first chance they get, they need to jump out and get as far away from the loud sounds as possible.
There’s no way to get around mp3 players. Everyone is using them and they are here to stay. Purchase noise-canceling headphones and earphones for your musical device. Noise-canceling means that you won’t hear any background noise when you are listening to your music. People raise the volume because they can still hear other sounds around them that are interfering with their music.
Treatment for Hearing Loss
You may already have an amount of hearing loss. See your doctor for hearing tests to confirm or deny what you suspect. It could be something as simple as an ear wax buildup that is causing your hearing deficit. A doctor can clear out the ear wax in the office and then retest your hearing.
Auditory tests will determine what type of hearing loss you have. For noise-induced hearing loss, you can sustain sensorineural damage. All of those loud sounds heard over time kill off the sensitive hair cells within the cochlea of the inner ear. These cells can’t pass on the electrical sound impulses to the nerves to be interpreted by the brain.
Hearing aids can help some people with hearing loss. For mild hearing loss, a hearing aid can help you to regain a level of hearing where you can function properly in any setting.
Cochlear implants have been used for individuals with sensorineural hearing loss. It requires a surgical procedure to implant the device within the cochlea of the ear. When hair cells are damaged, the implant will bypass the damaged area and send electrical impulses directly to the auditory nerve.
To complement the device implanted in your head, a microphone is worn on the head and a speech processor is worn on a belt around your waist. All three pieces work together to capture and magnify sound before sending it to the brain.
We often take our senses for granted. If we’ve never had any problems hearing, seeing, touching, smelling or tasting, we believe that the situation will always stay the same. That is not so especially when it comes to hearing. You can change your hearing with certain behaviors.
The ear is a delicate balance of tiny bones connected by tissue and a bony structure to create all of the sounds that we hear. From a whisper to a rock concert, the human ear can hear all sounds in between. But, the hair cells in the inner ear that transmit impulses to the brain are not indestructible.
Listening to loud sounds either at work or during recreational activities will lead to damage within the ear if protection is not used to keep the ear from such exposure. Listening to music devices like mp3 players is a cause for concern these days due to the volume at which kids listen to their favorite songs. All too often, the music is played at greater than 50 percent.
Even in the young, hearing loss can occur. Noise-induced hearing loss is becoming more and more common. Teaching your children to take precautions to save their hearing is a must. If they keep their mp3 player with them all the time then they have access to earphones. Using them can stop senseless hearing loss.
All hearing loss is not gradual. You may be the one who goes to one concert that is particularly loud and ends up with permanent hearing loss. Don’t take chances with your hearing or that of your children. Let them know their options. When someone says, “Can you hear me now?” you want to be able to answer with a definite, “Yes.”