What Is Hearing?

Hearing is the ability to perceive sound.  We achieve this by detecting sound vibrations through our ears. (We) Humans or People have a fairly narrow range of hearing compared to other species – frequencies that we are capable of hearing are between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz.  Frequencies above that range are know as ultrasonic and those below are know as infrasonic. Dogs can hear ultrasound, that’s why they hear dog whistles and we don’t.  Snakes can sense infrasound though their bellies, and elephants, giraffes, dolphins and whales use it to communicate.

There are three main parts of our ears:
the outer, the middle and the inner ear.

The Outer Ear

The Outer Ear

The outer ear consists of the pinna (the visible part of the ear), the ear canal and ends at the ear drum. The pinna collects sound waves and directs them into the canal to the eardrum. The shape of the pinna causes sound to be filtered differently on its way into the ear depending on where the sound is coming from. It’s the structure of the pinna that helps you determine the direction of a sound. If the sound is coming from behind or below you, it will bounce off the pinna in a different way than if it is coming from in front or above you.   

The Middle Ear

The Middle Ear

At the end of the ear canal lies your eardrum which is a thin, airtight membrane that vibrates when sound waves hit it and seperates the Outer Ear from the Middle Ear.  The middle ear consists of a small air filled chamber (the tympanic cavity) that is located near the ear drum. Within this chamber are the three smallest bones in the body known as the ossicles. The ossicles then transmit the vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear.

The Inner Ear

The Inner Ear

The inner ear consists of the cochlea and the auditory nerve.  The cochlea is shaped like a snail’s shell and is full of fluid and thousands of auditory receptors called stereocilia (hair cells).  When vibrations hit these stereocilia, they move which sends a signal to the brain via the auditory nerve.  The brain then tells you that you are hearing a sound and assigns it meaning.

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Hearing Loss Statistics

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can occur for a number of reasons and one of the most common causes is due to the natural aging process. Another common cause of hearing loss is exposure to loud noises which damage the hair cells in the cochlea.  There are also medical reasons for hearing loss like viruses, bacterial infection, heart conditions or stroke, head injuries, tumors, and certain medications.  New studies have revealed some surprising causes as well - like diabetes and hypertention.

However, hearing loss in most adults is a non-medical problem – meaning that in the majority of cases, medical or surgical treatment will not provide relief. Published studies conducted by the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and by ear-nose-and-throat (ENT) physicians at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, have confirmed that approximately 80% of adult patients with complaints of hearing loss cannot benefit from medical prescription or surgical treatment.

The majority of patients with hearing loss can be fully and most appropriately served with properly fitted hearing aids.

Conductive Hearing Loss:

Conductive hearing loss is a broad name for several ways that sound can be prevented from freely passing through the ear.  Sound isn’t being conducted properly from the outer or middle ear to the inner ear. This can be caused by something as simple as earwax to any of a number of medical conditions.

Sensori-Neural Hearing Loss:

The inner ear cannot properly transmit sound to the brain because hair cells inside the ear have been damaged. The most common cause of these damaged hair cells are aging and loud sounds. The damage is permanent since hair cells do not grow back.

Presbycusis Hearing Loss:

This is the most common type of sensori-neural hearing loss and develops as we age. The ability to hear high-frequency sounds (such as soft consonant sounds) usually begins to deteriorate first.  In females this gradual deterioration begins at about age 37. In men it begins at about age 32.


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