Hearing loss is the sudden or gradual decrease in hearing. Hearing loss can be mild or severe, reversible, temporary or permanent, and may affect one or both ears. The most common cause of hearing loss is age, affecting up to 25 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 75 and up to 50 percent of those over the age of 75. Age-related hearing loss, known as presbycusis, results from changes in the ear which cause gradual hearing loss. Some individuals are hearing-impaired or deaf as a result of a congenital defect or because of an illness, such as Ménière’s disease.
Causes of Hearing Loss
Most cases of hearing loss are caused by damage to the inner ear. Temporary or permanent hearing loss in people of all ages may be caused by:
- Chronic exposure to loud noises, such as loud music or machinery
- Wax buildup in one or both ears
- Family history
- Fluid buildup due to ear infection
- Foreign object stuck in the ear canal
- Ototoxic medication
Hearing loss may be caused by perforation of the eardrum from illness or injury or damage to the tiny bones, or ossicles, of the ear.
Types of Hearing Loss
There are three basic types of hearing loss, varying both in causes and treatment.
In conductive hearing loss, the problem results from a structural or blockage problem with the outer or middle ear. This variety of hearing loss, which causes sounds to be less audible, is most often treated with surgery.
In sensorineural hearing loss, the difficulty results from damage to the inner ear or to the auditory nerve, most commonly because the hair cells are not functioning properly. Sensorineural hearing loss, which causes sounds to be less intelligible, is often treated successfully with hearing aids.
Mixed Hearing Loss
Mixed hearing loss occurs when the patient suffers from hearing loss as a result of both neural and conductive malfunctions affecting both the both the outer or middle and the inner ear. Mixed hearing loss is most often treated with bone anchored hearing aids.
Hearing loss may affect a person’s relationships, employment, education, and general quality of life. People with significant hearing loss may also suffer from feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety.
Symptoms of Hearing Loss
While hearing loss may affect social interaction and other aspects of daily life, people are often unaware that they have a loss of hearing until others point it out to them. Common signs and symptoms of hearing loss may include:
- Muffled or unusually loud speech
- Inability to understand or decipher conversation
- Sensation that one or both ears are plugged
- Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears
People who are suffering from hearing loss may constantly have a need for increased volume on radio or television.
Diagnosis of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is diagnosed through a physical examination and various hearing tests may be performed. Tuning fork tests can help to diagnose whether the vibrating parts of the middle ear, including the eardrum, are working properly and whether there is damage to the sensors or nerves of the inner ear. Audiometer tests are used to determine the limits of the individual’s hearing.
Treatment of Hearing Loss
Treatment of hearing loss depends in the cause of the problem. For temporary loss of hearing due to wax buildup, a thorough cleaning of the ear canal, also known as an irrigation or lavage, may be helpful. Hearing loss caused by an ear infection may be treated with antibiotics and decongestants to rid mucus from the ears. For more permanent types of hearing loss resulting from aging, or damage to the inner ear, hearing aids may be helpful, although adjusting to them may take a few weeks.
When the eardrum has been torn or perforated, a surgical procedure known as tympanoplasty, may be necessary to repair the eardrum. Individuals with more profound hearing loss as a result of a congenital defect, injury or disease, may benefit from the surgical implantation of a cochlear implant, a small electronic device that helps to provide a sense of sound. Individuals coping with severe hearing loss may also learn to pay careful attention to gestures and facial expressions, to read lips, or to use sign language in order to improve their communication skills.