Man holding hand to ear struggling to hear

Your odds of developing hearing loss at some point in your life are regrettably quite high, even more so as you age. In the United States, 48 million people report some level of hearing loss, including nearly two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.

That’s the reason it’s vital to understand hearing loss, so that you can identify the symptoms and take preventative actions to avoid injury to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to concentrate on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.

The three types of hearing loss

In general, there are three types of hearing loss:

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

Conductive hearing loss is less common and is caused by some form of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and genetic malformations of the ear.

However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.

Sensorineural hearing loss

This category of hearing loss is the most prevalent and accounts for about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It is the result of injury to the hair cells (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 external ear, strike the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, due to damage to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is provided to the brain for processing is diminished.

This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and usually affects speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, contrary 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 varied possible causes, including:

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

The last two, direct exposure to loud noise and the aging process, constitute the most widespread causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news as it suggests that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t prevent aging, obviously, but you can regulate the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).

To fully understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should always remember that damage to the nerve cells of hearing usually occurs very gradually. Consequently, the symptoms progress so slowly that it can be near impossible to detect.

A slight amount of hearing loss each year will not be very detectable to you, but after several years it will be very apparent to your friends and family. So although you might 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
  • Difficulty following conversions, particularly with more than one person
  • Turning up the TV and radio volume to excess levels
  • Continuously asking others to repeat themselves
  • Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
  • Feeling exceedingly exhausted at the end of the day

If you notice any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you may have hearing loss, it’s best to arrange for a hearing exam. Hearing tests are fast and painless, and the earlier 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 because it is without question the most common type of hearing loss. Millions of instances of hearing loss in the US could be averted by adopting some simple precautionary measures.

Any sound higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with extended 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 harm your hearing.

Here are a few tips on how you can reduce the risk of hearing loss:

  • Implement the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume. Additionally, consider buying noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
  • Shield your ears at concerts – rock concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the threshold of safe volume (you could damage your hearing within 15 minutes). Minimize the volume with the use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that maintain the quality of the music.
  • Protect your ears in the workplace – if you work in a high-volume occupation, check with your employer about its hearing protection program.
  • Safeguard your hearing at home – a number of household and recreational activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Make sure that you always use ear protection during extended exposure.

If you already have hearing loss, all hope 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 prevent any additional consequences of hearing loss.

If you think you might have sensorineural hearing loss, book your quick and easy hearing test today!