There are three parts of the ear that are responsible for hearing, these are, the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Hearing loss can be caused by problems with the middle ear, the inner ear, or both. However, majority of permanent hearing loss cases are caused by problems with the inner ear.
Hearing loss caused by problems with the inner ear is called sensorineural hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is usually permanent and irreversible. To understand how sensorineural hearing loss happens, it’s important to understand the functions of the inner ear first.
Function of the Inner Ear
The inner ear has two main functions: hearing and balance. The outer wall of the inner ear, known as the bony labyrinth, has three main parts: the semicircular canals, vestibule, and the cochlea. The cochlea is the part that is responsible for hearing. Inside the cochlea, in the corti, there are millions of tiny hair cells or nerve endings, which are responsible for converting sounds to electrical signals and sending them to the brain for interpretation. A healthy cochlea receives sound and amplifies it.
When the cochlea or the hair cells in the corti are damaged, sensorineural hearing loss occurs.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Some of the most common causes of damage to the inner ear include: constant exposure to loud noise, aging, head trauma, certain illnesses, infections (i.e. mumps, measles, meningitis), ototoxic medication, and meniere’s disease, among others.
The hair cells in the inner ear naturally lose function as we age. However, since there are many of them, the quantity is able to make up for the loss of function of some hair cells. Since these cells cannot regain their function, if too many hair cells are damaged overtime, our hearing deteriorates.
Sensorineural hearing loss is generally irreversible unless the underlying cause is curable. For instance, in cases where the cause of hearing loss is a tumor growth in the inner ear, removal of the tumor can possibly restore hearing.
In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss has no cure. However, it can be managed with hearing aids, cochlear implants (in severe to profound cases), and other assistive listening devices.
While there have been much advancement in permanent sensorineural hearing loss research in recent years, there is no complete cure yet. Some scientists are researching stem cells and the possibility of turning them into hair cells to replace damaged cells in the inner ear. While medical science is still far from an actual cure, any advancement in research is still good news for the millions of people who can benefit from a potential cure in the future.
At present, however, people who have sensorineural hearing loss can only get by with management. Properly fitted and adjusted hearing aids can significantly help with day-to-day life by amplifying sound for the wearer. Those with a T-coil function can also benefit from hearing loop systems in public places where they are installed.
If you suspect that you or a family member has sensorineural hearing loss, make an appointment with an audiologist right away so you can undergo a proper hearing test.
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