We would venture to guess that few Arizonans give their ears much thought unless they are attaching jewelry to them or covering them up when the weather turns cold. It’s natural to take our ears for granted; they pretty much do their job automatically, after all. But for the roughly one out of every five people in Tucson with hearing loss, knowing how the ears work is essential in treating their condition.
The Ears: Complex Organs
Our ears are rather unassuming in appearance, but it turns out they are surprisingly complex organs that serve as more than handy perches for glasses. Working in tandem with the brain, the ears collect and process sounds in the external environment and the brain, in turn, makes sense of what we hear and assigns it meaning.
The ear is made up of three sections cleverly named the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. All three play a crucial part in the hearing process.
- The outer ear, sometimes called the auricle or pinna, is the external portion visible to others. Its job is to collect sound waves and funnel them into the ear canal, where they are sent to the eardrum.
- The middle ear consists of two parts: the auditory canal and eardrum. Sound waves filtering in from the outer ear strike the eardrum, causing it to vibrate and stimulating the ossicles – a trio of tiny bones (the malleus, or hammer; the incus, or anvil; and the stapes, or stirrup. The stapes is attached to a membrane-covered opening called the oval window, which connects the middle and inner ears.
- The inner ear is home to the cochlea, a structure that looks somewhat like a snail’s shell. It is sectioned into three fluid-filled parts. Vibrations from the eardrum stimulate movement of tiny nerve cells called stereocilia; they convert these vibrations into electrical impulses that traverse the auditory nerve to the brain, where they are translated into recognizable sound.
And, voila! The process of hearing is complete.
Unfortunately, for 48 million Americans, a kink in the works prevents proper hearing.
When the Ears Don’t Work Properly
Hearing loss occurs when any part of the ear sustains damage. There are two main types of hearing loss: conductive, which affects the outer or middle ear; and sensorineural (also known as nerve deafness), the result of damage to the inner ear. Conductive hearing loss may be caused by trauma, disease or medications. It is often temporary and may be reversed with surgery or drugs. Sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by natural aging, noise exposure, congenital factors and disease. This type of hearing loss is incurable but can usually be treated successfully with hearing aids. Nine out of ten patients in Tucson with hearing loss suffer from nerve deafness.
We hope you have learned something from this exploration of a body part that few give much thought to. Should you or a loved one have trouble hearing, schedule an appointment with an audiologist in Tucson as soon as you can. Treatment will ensure you enjoy a higher quality of life and will help prevent many of the side effects associated with untreated hearing loss.