Man holding hand to ear struggling to hear

Your chances of acquiring hearing loss at some point in your life are unfortunately very high, even more so as you grow older. In the United States, 48 million people report some extent of hearing loss, including just about two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.

That’s why it’s important to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the symptoms and take protective actions to avoid damage to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to focus on the most common form of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.

The three types of hearing loss

Generally speaking, there are three forms of hearing loss:

  1. Conductive hearing loss
  2. Sensorineural hearing loss
  3. Mixed hearing loss (a mix of sensorineural and conductive)

Conductive hearing loss is less common and is triggered by some type of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Frequent causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and hereditary malformations of the ear.

However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.

Sensorineural hearing loss

This type of hearing loss is the most common and accounts for about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It is the result of damage to the hair cells (the nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain.

With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter the outer ear, strike the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, because of destruction to the hair cells (the tiny nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is transmitted to the brain for processing is weakened.

This diminished signal is perceived as muffled or faint and usually impacts speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Also, as opposed to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss tends to be permanent and can’t be corrected with medication or surgery.

Causes and symptoms

Sensorineural hearing loss has various possible causes, including:

  • Genetic disorders
  • Family history of hearing loss
  • Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
  • Head injuries
  • Benign tumors
  • Direct exposure to loud noise
  • The aging process (presbycusis)

The final two, exposure to loud noise and the aging process, account for the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news since it suggests that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t prevent aging, of course, but you can minimize the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).

To understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should try to remember that injury to the nerve cells of hearing usually unfolds very slowly. Consequently, the symptoms progress so gradually that it can be virtually impossible to perceive.

A small amount of hearing loss each year will not be very recognizable to you, but after many years it will be very apparent to your family and friends. So even though you may believe everybody is mumbling, it might be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.

Here are a few of the signs and symptoms to look for:

  • Trouble understanding speech
  • Trouble following conversions, particularly with more than one person
  • Turning up the television and radio volume to unreasonable levels
  • Continuously asking others to repeat themselves
  • Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Feeling excessively tired at the end of the day

If you detect any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you might have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to schedule a hearing test. Hearing tests are fast and painless, and the sooner you treat hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to conserve.

Prevention and treatment

Sensorineural hearing loss is mostly preventable, which is great news since it is by far the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the US could be prevented by implementing some simple precautionary measures.

Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with long-term exposure.

As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. That means at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could damage your hearing.

Here are a few tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:

  • Use the 60/60 rule – when listening to a portable music player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume. Also consider investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
  • Safeguard your ears at live shows – rock concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, far above the ceiling of safe volume (you could injure your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the aid of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that preserve the quality of the music.
  • Protect your ears at work – if you work in a loud profession, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
  • Protect your hearing at home – a number of household and leisure activities generate high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Make sure that you always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.

If you currently have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can substantially improve your life. Hearing aids can enhance your conversations and relationships and can forestall any further consequences of hearing loss.

If you think you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!