Aural health – not to be confused with “oral” – is a catchy name for ear health, with a special focus on the best preventative practices and rehabilitation methods for hearing loss. Here’s everything you need to know about aural health and how you can maintain a functional pair of ears.
The Science of Hearing
To understand how hearing loss occurs, you first have to understand the science of hearing. These are the main steps of the hearing process:
- Sound waves enter the outer ear, pass through the ear canal and hit the eardrum.
- The sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate, which in turn sends the vibrations to three small bones in the middle ear: the malleus, incus and stapes.
- The three bones amplify the sound waves and send them to a fluid-filled snail-shaped organ called the cochlea in the inner ear. The cochlea has a partition called the basilar membrane, which serves as the base of human hearing.
- Once the vibrations cause the cochlea’s fluids to ripple, a linear wave starts moving along the basilar membrane. Hair cells on the membrane ride the wave up and down, with high-pitched sounds vibrating near the wide end of the cochlea and deep sounds vibrating near the center.
- As the hair cells move up and down, tiny projections called stereocilia bend and open into pore-like channels. Chemicals rush into the channels, creating an electrical signal.
- The inner ear’s auditory nerve carries the electrical signal to the brain, which registers the signal as sound.
Hearing loss can result from a malfunction anywhere throughout this sequence, so identifying the problematic internal part can be a difficult task. However, we do know the main external causes of hearing loss.
Causes and Signs of Hearing Loss
There are four types of hearing loss that the human ear can experience:
- Conductive: hearing loss caused by a blockage in the outer or middle ear; treatable with medicine and surgery
- Sensorineural: hearing loss caused by a problem with the inner ear or the hair cells inside the inner ear.
- Mixed: hearing loss caused by conductive and sensorineural problems
- Auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder: hearing loss caused by damage to the auditory nerve which fails to organize sound waves so the brain can understand them.
Hearing loss can also range from mild to profound, be more prevalent in one ear or fluctuate in severity over time. Sometimes the onset takes years or is present from birth with congenital and acquired conditions, while other people may experience sudden hearing loss. It all depends on the force that caused the damage:
- Ototoxic medications: certain medications can accidentally cause hearing loss, including aminoglycoside antibiotics, loop diuretics, high doses of aspirin and some chemotherapy drugs.
- Acoustic Neuroma: this is a type of tumor that grows inside the ear and interferes with the hearing process, causing a ringing sensation.
- Loud noises: frequent exposure to noises over 70 decibels can cause long-term hearing loss, while anything over 120 decibels can cause immediate hearing loss and even burst the eardrums.
- Head injuries: a traumatic brain injury, hold in the eardrum or damage to the middle ear can cause hearing loss.
One might think the signs of hearing loss are self-evident, but not everyone realizes it right away. Sometimes hearing regression takes so long as we age that years might pass before for someone notices the condition. Here are the signs of hearing loss you should be aware of:
- Normal conversation sounds muffled
- Trouble hearing or differentiating consonants
- Frequently asking people to repeat themselves
- Difficulty talking on the phone
- TV and radio volume need to be louder than before
- Fewer environmental sounds (birds chirping, cars driving by, etc.)
If you start to notice these behaviors in yourself or a loved one, seek professional help as soon as possible. Noise-related hearing loss is irreversible, so it’s crucial that you take swift action and get proactive treatment – not reactive. However, there are some rehabilitation methods available for chronic non-noise-related hearing loss.
Aural Rehabilitation Methods
Aural rehabilitation for chronic hearing loss usually consists of four types of treatment:
- Assist and alert devices: assistive learning devices (ADLs) such as remote microphones, sound field systems and vibrating alarm clocks help patients navigate their homes.
- New communication techniques: learning sign language, asking people to face the subject while speaking, reducing background noise and other communication tactics allow patients to continue holding normal conversations.
- Auditory training: activities such as speechreading and speech discrimination can improve a patient’s ability to decipher words despite their hearing loss.
- Hearing aids: an audiologist will recommend a specific style of hearing aid based on the patient’s degree of hearing loss and other factors.
Although the first three methods can still be beneficial, today’s advanced hearing aids are the best treatment options. Patients just have to make sure they choose the right styles and features for their lifestyles. For example, there are custom hearing aids for small children and those with uncommon ear anatomies. Every patient’s hearing loss is a little different, so the treatment will also have slight variations.
There are also special surgeries and implants available, but these procedures are reserved for patients with profound hearing loss who did not benefit from the four traditional treatment methods. If possible, you should avoid surgery and stick with non-cosmetic rehabilitation.
Practice Healthy Hearing Habits
Hearing loss sometimes occurs through no fault of the patient, but more often than not, it happens over time due to frequent exposure to loud noises. Make sure you and your loved ones practice healthy hearing habits by limiting loud noise, cleaning your ears often and scheduling regular check-ups with your doctor.