What is hearing loss?

Hearing loss can have a profound impact on your quality of life. Most hearing loss happens so gradually that you may not notice it until it becomes a big problem. The people around you will notice first.

Normal hearing

Your ear is a complex sound analysing system, capable of detecting sounds over a wide range of intensity and frequency.

If you have normal hearing, you can hear everything from a whisper to a jet engine. Your hearing can alert you to dangers – for example the location and speed of an approaching vehicle. With good hearing, you can listen selectively, focusing on one conversation without missing a word. You can appreciate a string quartet and the sound of a loved one’s voice.

Hearing loss

When you lose your hearing, the sounds of life begin to fade. You’ll probably find higher-frequency sounds disappear first. Birds chirping in the trees become fainter, and music becomes less clear. Since you can still hear low frequencies, you may not think there’s a problem. You tend to tune out many softer sounds naturally, so it’s easy to forget how much vibrancy they add.

As your hearing loss worsens, the sounds necessary for understanding speech diminish. You can’t hear soft consonants, and it becomes difficult to reliably distinguish one sound from another. You can’t always understand what people say, especially if there’s background noise. You may think people mumble when, in fact, it’s your hearing that’s not clear.

As others can’t see your hearing loss, they may think you’re just ignoring them. Your family and friends may complain “you can hear perfectly well when you want to”.

Types of hearing loss

Your ears are complicated. A problem with any part of your hearing system can cause hearing loss. There are two main types of hearing loss. You may have only one type or a mixture of both.

Sensorineural hearing loss describes problems in your inner ear – the cochlea, hearing nerve or auditory pathway. The most common cause of sensorineural hearing loss is the deterioration of the hair cells in your cochlea due to aging or exposure to loud sounds. About 90 percent of people who suffer from hearing loss have sensorineural hearing loss. We can effectively treat this type of hearing loss with hearing aids.

Conductive hearing loss is caused by problems in your outer or middle ear that interfere with the transmission of sound. This interference can be caused by:

  • A large build-up of earwax

  • Infections or growths in your outer ear

  • Holes in your eardrum

  • A disease called otosclerosis (which causes your ossicles to become fixed and unable to vibrate)

  • Genetic factors

You can often get medical treatment to correct or improve conductive hearing loss. If that’s not possible, you may find hearing aids help.