Hearing loss is inevitable with time. However, those who are exposed to repetitive hazards to healthy hearing are likely to experience it early. Here, we will discuss types of hearing loss, symptoms, risk factors, what you can do to prevent or mitigate hearing loss, and whether or not anything can be done to remedy the existing hearing loss. Just as with most health issues, the key to better hearing lies primarily in prevention.
Table of Contents
- How Our Hearing Works
- Types of Hearing Loss
- Why Do Loud Sounds Cause Hearing Loss?
- How Much Exposure Causes Hearing Loss?
- Symptoms of Hearing Loss
- How to Prevent Hearing Loss
- Can You Improve Your Hearing After Experiencing Loss?
How Our Hearing Works
The ear is made of three major sets of structures. They are the inner ear, the middle ear, and the outer ear. Vibrations known as sound waves move through the outer ear and vibrate the eardrum. Then the eardrum vibrates three tiny bones, which are actually a highly developed adaptation of the jaw. These tiny bones drum out incredibly fine and accurate representations of the sound that has entered the ear and transmits it to the inner ear.
Once the transmission has reached the inner ear, it passes through a fluid filled chamber inside a structure shaped like the shell of a snail. That inner chamber is called the cochlea. It is connected to a vast complex of nerve cells that transmit information to the auditory center of the brain, which is where the sensation of hearing takes place.
As you can see, the process of taking in vibrations accurately, transmitting them to the inner ear, and finally passing them onto the brain is a massively intricate and delicate process. Unfortunately, this system is destined to take damage and to degrade with age. Exposing our ears to excessively loud noise and other misuses will accelerate the process of hearing degradation.
Types of Hearing Loss
There are three main forms of hearing loss: Sensorineural, Conductive, and Mixed. Different forms of hearing loss refer to damage to different and various parts of the hearing organs, the blockage of the free movement of sound into the ear, and other impediments to hearing. Knowing which type of hearing loss you suffer from or are at risk of developing can help you to protect yourself and to seek proper treatment after hearing loss has occurred.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when either the inner ear or auditory nerve, which is responsible for delivering impulses to the brain, is damaged or hindered in some way. In most cases, this type of hearing loss is permanent.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound cannot reach the inner ear due to damage or a blockage. If the blockage is caused by infection or the buildup of wax or other substances, it can be reversed. Infections that are aggressive and have progressed too far can, and will, cause permanent hearing loss.
Mixed Hearing Loss
Mixed hearing loss is a combination of the two other forms. Individuals who suffer from multiple forms of hearing impediments will tend to also have permanent or semi-permanent hearing loss in many cases.
Why Do Loud Sounds Cause Hearing Loss?
Sound is vibration in the air or another medium. Hearing is what happens when the auditory nerve and parts of the brain responsible for decoding vibratory sensations are struck by vibrations in the air. If the vibration is strong enough, it can cause shock and damage to the structures which enable us to hear.
Structures in the auditory complex can be damaged by excessively high pitched or powerful sound waves. They include hair cells that capture sound, membranes or the eardrum, nerve cells responsible for transmitting audio information, and others.
Damage to any parts of the hearing organs can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss. Loud bursts of noise, poking your eardrum with a finger or other object, and sudden changes in the air pressure can all produce similar mechanical damage to the ear. These types of damage come on suddenly, can be very painful (or sometimes not painful at all), and tend to produce permanent hearing damage.
Other forms of hearing damage include damage to the inner ear caused by loud noise and age degrading the tiny hairs of the middle ear or to the nerve cells by which these hairs pass on sensory information. The gradual buildup of wax in the ear is another common cause of temporary hearing loss. A waxy buildup in the ears often prompts persons suffering from it to probe their own ear and causing one of the forms of mechanical damage described above.
Finally, we have the possibility of infection, tumors, and abnormal bone growth and their potential to cause hearing damage. Infection can be temporary in many cases, though no infection should be left to take its course. A tumor is always a sign of serious medical problems, which should be addressed by a medical professional immediately.
Bone growths are also an unusual, but possibly serious threat to healthy hearing. These abnormal bone growths can cause damage to the structures of the inner and middle ear and should be examined so that healthcare professionals can decide if, and how to remove them.
How Much Exposure Causes Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss happens predictably with age. Typically, it becomes noticeable by the mid to late forties and happens to men and women at statistically identical rates.
However, the causes of early and acute hearing loss affect different people to different degrees. It might be reasonable to say that one person’s hearing organs are more susceptible to damage than another’s. What causes instant and lasting hearing loss for one person, may only cause mild or temporary hearing loss in another. The one thing everyone can do is exercise caution. We must all be prepared to use hearing protection when exposing ourselves to potentially damaging levels of noise and avoid such situations where possible. When it comes to your home workshop, PPE starts with hearing protection. But, it also goes well beyond it to eye, face, and clothing safety measures that keep you working and free of injury.
CDC Statistics on Hearing Loss and Construction Work
Statistics from the CDC show that construction workers in particular may be at risk for hearing loss.
- 51% of construction workers have been exposed to hazardous noise
- 31% of construction workers with hearing loss report not wearing hearing protection
- 14% of construction workers have hearing difficulty
- 7% of construction workers have tinnitus
- 25% of construction workers exposed to hazardous noise have a hearing impairment
- 16% of construction workers who have been exposed to hazardous noise have a hearing impairment in both ears
Symptoms of Hearing Loss
While the symptoms of hearing loss vary from person to person, they tend to come in the following forms:
- Muffled or muted sound
- Difficulty hearing consonants
- Trouble understanding words
Different forms of hearing loss can affect a person’s ability to hear specific types of sounds. As mentioned above, it is common that a person will have more difficulty hearing consonant sounds than vowel sounds. These subtle forms of hearing loss can cause a person to avoid conversations, to shy away from social settings that they would normally enjoy, to turn electronic device volumes up very high, and frequently ask others to repeat what they said.
Constantly Turning the Television Volume Up
Those who are experiencing hearing loss will constantly think that the television or the stereo is not turned up loud enough. If you want to turn the TV up but you’re being told by others that it’s already loud enough, your hearing is weaker than it should be.
Comparing hearing abilities with others around you is a good way to gauge your hearing. If you always want to turn the volume on electronic devices up, you’re not hearing as well as those around you. This means that you need to discuss hearing loss with your physician.
Can’t Easily Hear the Phone
Talking on the phone can be one of the biggest challenges for those who are experiencing hearing loss. If you find that it’s difficult to make out what people are saying when you talk to them on the phone, you may be developing a hearing problem.
You should discuss the issue with your doctor if you can’t understand a phone conversation even after turning your phone’s speaker up to the highest volume setting or using a Bluetooth hearing protection option.
Difficult to Have a Conversation in a Noisy Environment
In the beginning, hearing loss is often only apparent when affected individuals are trying to have a conversation with a lot of noise around them. One of the earliest symptoms of hearing loss in many patients is an increasingly severe inability to block out ambient noise.
Individuals often experience difficulty filtering out background noise as they get older, meaning that they’ll struggle to carry on a conversation when they are in noisy places like loud restaurants, sporting event venues or workshops. Fortunately, hearing loss treatments are often designed to help patients deal specifically with blocking out background noise, making it easier for them to carry on conversations in noisy environments once again. If you work in a workshop with a lot of background noise, make sure to include hearing protection in your workshop safety gear.
Less Interested in Socializing Because of Hearing Difficulties
One of the most unfortunate and troublesome side effects of experiencing hearing loss is struggling in your social life. Those who experience hearing problems are often tired out very easily in social situations because they have to put a lot of effort into focusing on understanding the conversation.
If you find that you’re not socializing as much as you used to, you should consider whether a hearing issue is the reason. You shouldn’t let your social life suffer because of an easily treatable hearing loss issue.
Ringing Sound in Ears
Hearing loss is often accompanied by tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. Tinnitus can be distracting and make it more difficult to understand conversation. Ringing in the ears can cause conversation to sound like it is drowned out, muffled or unclear.
There are numerous hearing loss treatments available that focus specifically on ringing in the ears. These can range from taking anti-anxiety medications to cleaning wax buildup from the ears. The only way to figure out why you are experiencing ringing in the ears is to discuss the issue with your physician.
How to Prevent Hearing Loss
Preventing hearing loss is rather straightforward. It’s about avoiding excessively loud and/or persistent noise. But, it can seem tedious when we forget the possible consequences of failure to protect our hearing. It is also important to remember the role that good hygiene plays in the maintenance of healthy hearing as well, as infection is one of the most common causes of temporary and permanent hearing loss. For your ears when loud noises are unavoidable, you can go with ear muffs designed to protect your hearing and keep potential damage away.
Avoid Loud Noises
If you go to a loud music event, do not sit directly in front of the sound projection systems. If you are going to be near an airport runway or visit a shooting range, use proper hearing protection, one piece of essential workplace safety gear. Firearms discharges are notorious for their ability to instantly cause permanent hearing loss. Prolonged noises are another major offender, which are most often encountered in industrial production centers and other locations with loud machinery. If you are regularly exposed to prolonged loud noises at work or expect to encounter rapid explosive noises, it’s important to make a habit out of wearing hearing protection.
Be Careful When Using Headphones
Headphones are convenient and fun to use, but pose a major hazard to your hearing if not used with care. Surprising to many construction veterans, headphones are not the same. Bluetooth hearing protection options, another great alternative for communication and hearing loss prevention. Teenagers are the most likely to suffer hearing loss via headphone use at excessively high volumes. When listening to headphones, the best way to stay within a safe volume range is to make sure you can hear people speaking at moderate volumes.
Protect Your Ears During Loud Activities
Rock concerts, visits to the shooting range, attending a motor race, or an air show – these are all examples of activities that can result in rapid and permanent hearing loss if you don’t take the proper precautions. Always bring hearing protection to events like these and use it before loud noises occur.
Wear Hearing Protection
If you work around persistent loud machine noises, ride motorcycles, or do anything that can damage your hearing, make hearing protection a regular part of your everyday gear. Some ear plugs can fit into a wallet, easily go around your neck, or can be kept comfortably in a front pocket. There’s no reason not to make hearing protection a part of your everyday life, and be sure to keep your ears and hair clean and dry to avoid potentially damaging ear infections.
Get Your Hearing Tested Regularly
Most people lose their hearing gradually over time and fail to notice the difference. If you have endured permanent hearing loss, pretending it hasn’t happened will just lower your quality of life. Your ear care professional can spot the warning signs of hearing loss before serious and lasting damage occurs. By being tested regularly, you can get help before it’s too late and maybe even prevent further hearing loss.
Can You Improve Your Hearing After Experiencing Loss?
Some forms of hearing loss are temporary, while others are not so easily reversed. Hearing loss caused by a minor infection or a waxy buildup should clear up and return to normal.
In most other cases, damage to your hearing will be lasting or permanent. In cases where damage to the organs of the middle or inner ear is permanently damaged, hearing aids and cochlear implants can be used to regain a considerable amount of hearing acuity. These devices can never replace our natural earing abilities, but they can make the natural decline of our hearing much more tolerable.