Man holding hand to ear struggling to hear

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

That’s why it’s crucial to understand hearing loss, so that you can identify the symptoms and take protective actions to reduce injury to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to zero in on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.

The three forms 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 mix of conductive and sensorineural)

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

This article will focus on sensorineural hearing loss as it is by far the most common.

Sensorineural hearing loss

This category of hearing loss is the most prevalent and makes up about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It results from injury 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 very small 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. Additionally, unlike conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is typically 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 trauma
  • Benign tumors
  • Direct exposure to loud noise
  • The aging process (presbycusis)

The final two, exposure to loud noise and aging, account for the most widespread causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news as it means that most cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t avoid aging, of course, but you can minimize the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).

To understand the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should bear in mind that injury to the nerve cells of hearing almost always happens very gradually. Consequently, the symptoms advance so slowly that it can be virtually impossible to detect.

A slight amount of hearing loss each year will not be very noticeable to you, but after many years it will be very apparent to your friends and family. So although you might believe everyone is mumbling, it could very well 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
  • Problems following conversions, especially with more than one person
  • Turning up the television and radio volume to excess levels
  • Continually asking others to repeat themselves
  • Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Becoming excessively tired at the end of the day

If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you might have hearing loss, it’s best to arrange for a hearing exam. Hearing tests are fast and pain-free, 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 good news because it is without question the most common type of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the United States could be avoided by implementing some simple precautionary measures.

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

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

  • Employ 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 purchasing noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
  • Protect your ears at live shows – concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the threshold of safe volume (you could harm your hearing within 15 minutes). Minimize the volume with the aid of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that preserve the quality of the music.
  • Protect your ears at your workplace – if you work in a loud 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. Always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.

If you currently have hearing loss, all hope is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can significantly 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!