How Does Hearing Work?

Sound is best described as vibrations that travel as invisible waves of pressure.  As humans, we characterize sound by its different frequencies (or speeds), different amplitudes (or strength/loudness), and different tones (or quality).

The Outer Ear (1 in the diagram below) collects these sound waves which are then transmitted through the Ear Canal (2).

diagram of inner and outer ear

The pressure reaches the Eardrum (3) causing it to vibrate.  In turn, tiny bones behind the Eardrum (4) amplify the vibrations and transmit these vibrations to the Inner Ear (5).

Here in the Inner Ear, one of magical actions of the human body occur as these vibrations are converted to electro-chemical signals.  These signals then travel along the Auditory Nerve (6) until they reach the brain.  Your masterful brain then interprets these signals as various sounds.

boy whispering in older man's ear

What Can Go Wrong With My Hearing?

We use the term, hearing loss, to describe a degradation in your ability to hear.  Hearing loss can occur in any of these scenarios:

  • Damage to the Inner Ear.  Wear and tear can occur in the inner ear as delicate hairs and nerve cells are affected by both age and too many or too much loud noises.  These means that the electrical signals traveling to the brain don’t work as efficiently and, as a result, we don’t hear as well.  This type of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss.  It is permanent.
  • Earwax.  A buildup of earwax can block the traveling sound waves in the ear canal.
  • Infections, Abnormalities, Tumors.  Your Outer Ear and Middle Ear are susceptible to such things as infection, abnormal bone growth, and invasive tumors.  Any of these can cause damage that leads to hearing loss.

  • Ruptured Eardrum.  Loud blasts of noise, sudden changes in pressure, poking your eardrum with an object, and infection can cause your eardrum to rupture.  Any of these can affect your hearing.
  • Ototoxicity. This term refers to drug or chemical-related damage to the inner ear, resulting in damage to the organs responsible for hearing and balance. As discussed in one of our recent blog posts, some chemotherapy medications and radiation therapy can cause ototoxicity. The results can include temporary or permanent hearing loss.

What Are Some Signs That I May Have Hearing Loss?

There are some obvious indications that you may have hearing loss as well as some less obvious signs that you could be ignoring.  If you answer “yes” to any or all of these questions, you may have hearing loss.

  • Do you find yourself thinking that people just don’t talk as clearly as they used to?  (While it is true that many people mumble or talk too fast, etc., this has always been true.)
  • Are you frequently asking others to repeat themselves?  Or, perhaps you’ve done it so much that its now embarrassing to do so?
  • Is understanding speech especially difficult for you in noisy situations such as restaurants or a crowded car?
  • Are you reliant of being able to look someone in the face in order to hear them?
  • Are you having trouble with speech recognition on the telephone?
  • Do you rely on one ear over the other in order to hear better?
  • Have you ever had to adjust the volume so high on the TV or radio that others complain?
  • Have you ever failed to hear things like the doorbell, smoke alarm, telephone, or alarm clock?

Keep in mind that difficulty in hearing can lead to mental and physical fatigue as you work all that much harder to hear.  It is stressful and this stress can negatively influence other aspects of your health as well as your interpersonal relationships.

We have prepared a brief online assessment that can help you determine if it might be time for a comprehensive hearing evaluation.  You have nothing to lose (except all that stress).