Hearing loss doesn’t just happen to elderly people—it happens to Americans of all ages, and the reasons for hearing loss are many. The ear is a complex organ with three main parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. In fact, the inner ear compartments are called the labyrinth. Any of these parts and their intricate mechanics can affect a person’s ability to hear.
Conductive Hearing Loss
This type of hearing loss includes any situation involving the conveyance of sound through the middle ear to the inner ear. This conductive channel can be impacted by ear wax, fluid from colds, ear infections, Eustachian tube dysfunction, allergies, congenital defects, malformations, tumors, trauma, or otosclerosis (overgrowth of bone). With conductive hearing loss, blockages can usually be treated and hearing can be completely or partially restored. Sometimes, such as in the case of congenital defects, otosclerosis, trauma, or tumors, surgery may be necessary.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural (SNHL) hearing loss is so-called because sensory and neural hearing loss are usually connected. This type of hearing loss occurs when the nerves in the inner ear are damaged (neural) and/or when the hair cells in the organ of Corti are injured, destroyed, or degenerated. Meniere’s disease, which is caused by the buildup of fluid in the inner ear, can cause loss of balance, vertigo, tinnitus, headings, nausea, vomiting, as well as hearing loss.
Although some situations can be improved with surgery or therapy, sensorineural hearing loss is more permanent than conductive hearing loss. Unfortunately, sensorineural hearing loss accounts for over 90 percent of hearing cases. And once hair cells are damaged, they cannot be regenerated on their own. However, researchers have seen some success with stem cell and gene therapy to regenerate hair cells in deafened mammals. They hope to see success with this in humans as well.
Mixed Hearing Loss
Sometimes a patient experiences a combination of both conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss. In these cases, a hearing test will identify the cause for the hearing problems. Is there nerve damage that is complicated by ear wax buildup? Or hair cell degeneration that’s made worse by otosclerosis in the middle ear?
Because hearing loss is a complex situation, you should get a hearing test from a skilled audiologist as soon as you notice changes to your hearing. An audiologist will perform a variety of specialized tests to determine whether the hearing issues are conductive, sensorineural, or a mix of both.