Open Your Ears! Your Guide To Healthy Hearing
Hearing Awareness Week is upon us, and what better time to gain a better understanding of how our hearing works, how to tell and what to do when things go wrong, and how to live a full and happy life with hearing loss, including advice on choosing between hearing aid solutions.
How hearing works
Hearing is a complex process involving both the ears and brain working together to create a ‘hearing pathway’. In simple terms, sound travels through the ear as sound waves, vibrates in the ear drum (and gets processed in other ways through a complex organisation of bones, hair, and cells), and is then sent as electrical impulses along the auditory nerve to the brain. These impulses are then interpreted by the brain as different types of sound, allowing us to make sense of and participate in the world around us. Read on for a more in-depth look at the different parts of the ear and how they work together to help us hear.
Our ears are made up of many parts, which are usually divided into three categories: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Each of these parts plays an important role in helping us to hear.
1. The Outer Ear
The outer ear collects ambient sound from the world and directs it along the ear canal so it can reach the ear drum. The visible shape of our outer ears (known as the pinna) acts like a funnel, directing and amplifying the soundwaves into our ears. When sound hits our ear drums—a very thin membrane—it vibrates, transferring the sound deeper into our ear.
2. The Middle Ear
Once the sound reaches our eardrums, it interacts with the middle ear. The role of our middle ear is to transmit the sounds collected by our outer ears. It does this via a group of specialised bones—the smallest bones of the human body—that vibrate and conduct the soundwaves, directing them into our inner ears.
There’s also another important job performed by our middle ears: ensuring that the air pressure that builds up is equalised with the surrounding air pressure. We have all felt the uncomfortable sensation of unequal pressure when flying, or going for a scenic drive through the mountains. The Eustachian tube is responsible for remedying this imbalance, opening with swallowing, yawning, or chewing, which equalises the pressure and brings our ears back into balance.
3. The Inner Ear
Our inner ear, made up of a series of tubes and passages, transforms the soundwaves that have travelled through the outer and middle ear. The sounds are converted into electrical impulses that are sent to our brains along the auditory nerve, allowing us to interpret and recognise what we are hearing from the world around us.
Here, in our inner ears, lies an important organ called the vestibular. It has a critical job within our bodies that we likely give little thought to—controlling our sense of balance. Inside, little fluid-filled passages monitor our body’s movement, letting our brains keep track of where we are in space and keeping us upright and on our feet.
Hearing loss can occur as a result of problems at any stage of the hearing pathway, and at any age. To find out about the different types of hearing loss read on.
Types of hearing loss
There are 4 types of hearing loss: Conductive Hearing Loss, Sensorineural Hearing Loss, Mixed Hearing Loss and Central Hearing Impairment. The main difference between them is the physical location of the problem within the ear.
1. Conductive hearing loss
Sometimes the sound from the outside world is not conducted efficiently within our outer and middle ears, resulting in difficulty hearing soft sounds. This type of hearing loss is called Conductive Hearing Loss. It can occur with an ear infection or from the common cold, damage to the Eustachian tube, or a build up of wax inside the ear. There are medical or surgical options available as treatment for conductive hearing loss. An audiologist can recommend which treatment type would best suit you.
2. Sensorineural hearing loss
A more common cause of hearing loss involves damage to either the tiny hair cells in our inner ears or damage along the auditory nerve. This means that the sound vibrations reaching the inner ear can’t be converted into electrical signals, or that those signals cannot travel into the brain. This type of hearing loss is known as Sensorineural Hearing Loss. It can occur with repeated exposure to loud noise, and also occurs as a natural process of ageing. It results in permanent hearing loss, as the hair cells are unable to do their job of transmitting vibrations once damaged. Hearing aids are the most common treatment option for Sensorineural Hearing Loss.
3. Mixed Hearing Loss
Some cases of hearing loss involve both Conductive and Sensorineural Hearing Loss. This type of hearing loss is known as Mixed Hearing Loss. Talk to your audiologist for the best combination of treatment/s for this type of hearing loss.
4. Central hearing impairment
Hearing can also be impaired by injury or disease, which is known as Central Hearing Impairment. Sometimes it’s associated with hearing loss, and sometimes not. If you experience sudden hearing loss, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
A comprehensive audiological evaluation should be undertaken in order to determine the type and severity of hearing loss, and to make appropriate recommendations for treatment. Find out more about each type of hearing loss and preventive measures you can take to avoid them here, or read on to find out how you can check to see if you have hearing problem.
How can I check if I have a hearing problem?
Hearing loss is the second most common health condition experienced by Australians, but most people don’t notice they have a problem until they start to experience symptoms. To get ahead of the game, the best course of action is to take a baseline hearing test and annual follow-up hearing tests to help identify and treat any hearing issues early.
A visit to a professional audiologist for a hearing test will provide a comprehensive assessment of your current hearing, as well as any recommendations for treatment. During your visit the audiologist will run a series of tests and examinations using professional equipment, which helps to build a full picture of your current hearing, your lifestyle, and to assess the nature and level of any hearing loss.
Living with hearing loss
Hearing loss often happens slowly, so it’s not always immediately obvious. Even after the hearing loss is identified, people may have difficulty accepting it, or deny that the problem is important enough to warrant a visit to a specialist. The first step in living with hearing loss is acknowledging that there is a problem. It’s very difficult to take measures to minimise the long-term impact of the hearing loss if you are in denial that it even exists. As difficult as it can be to accept, hearing loss is serious and seeking professional advice will always be beneficial in terms of getting the information you need and starting any suitable treatment options.
Living with hearing loss can be difficult not only for you, but also for those around you. The people closest to you are likely to notice things like having to turn the TV volume up, or asking them to repeat themselves over and over again. If you notice yourself limiting your social interactions and not enjoying the places and activities you used to, seek professional advice from a qualified audiologist. With correct advice and treatment, your quality of life doesn’t need to suffer because of hearing loss.
People living with hearing loss can have a rewarding and enjoyable life through the use of modern technology including hearing aids and other assistive devices, as well as lip reading, sign language and other trainable skills. These can all help with communication and interaction with others at work, school and home. Depending on the type and severity of hearing loss, medical treatments (such as surgery) may also be helpful.
Read more about how you can learn to live a full and happy life with a hearing loss here, or read on to find out about the latest hearing aid technologies available.
New technology hearing aids
Hearing aids used to be bulky, uncomfortable eyesores, but not anymore! Modern technology and advances in design and function mean that hearing aids have vastly improved from past models, with electronics now miniaturised to the point where designers can focus more on aesthetics and developing hearing aid solutions that are so tiny, they’re considered invisible. Lyric from Phonak has been described as ‘the contact lens for your ear’, and there are many other hearing aid options in a choice of styles to suit your lifestyle and even your fashion sense.
Modern hearing aids also boast increasingly sophisticated features including compatibility with smartphones and computers, waterproof options for use in a wide range of environments, ‘smart’ processing that can detect where sound is coming from, adjust speech sounds relative to background noise, and change settings depending on the activities you’re doing (like talking on the phone or listening to music) and bluetooth compatibility, which allows aids to communicate with one another and exchange data.
The different types of hearing aid technology available is extensive and may feel overwhelming, so it’s important to consider your needs and preferences before you make a decision on what type of hearing aid you want to purchase. These technologies range from simple settings that may require manual adjustment in certain environments, to automated and sophisticated settings that have greater processing power. The main overall difference is the level of fine tuning you require or want from your device. Looks are also an important consideration, and now more than ever there are a wide range of options available once you have chosen the style of hearing aid you’d like.
Modern hearing aids come in two distinct styles: models that sit in the ear, and models that sit behind the ear.
In The Ear (ITE) hearing aids:Hearing aids designed to fit in your ear are discreet and can be invisible to others, as they either sit inside the ear canal or just at the entrance to your ear. To others, it will not be obvious that you are wearing a hearing aid at all! Because of their small size, and the fact that they sit inside your ear, ITE hearing aids are limited in their ability to be manually adjusted, and will need to be custom fit by a trained audiologist. They also have small switches and battery sizes.
Behind The Ear (BTE) hearing aids:The latest BTE hearing aids are much more contemporary in both design and look; they are small, sleek, and are a much more attractive option compared to past designs. Modern BTE models are customisable not only in the types of controls and battery types, but also in terms of colour and style. You can even choose them to match your hair and skin tone.