Hearing loss is unique to each individual that arrives at our ENT office. While hearing aids are often the answer for our Anchorage, Alaska patients, audiometric evaluations are the first step. The gold standard in determining a patient’s hearing loss, audiometric evaluations also help us decide on a to address the patient’s symptoms. Each diagnostic test provides information to complete the full picture of a patient’s type and severity of hearing loss. The results of each test will reveal one of three types of hearing loss, each with different symptoms and treatment plans.
Conductive Hearing Loss
A conductive hearing loss is most often a result of a disease or condition that affects the ear canal and/or middle ear. The hearing loss hinders the ability for sound waves to travel through the ear canal, tympanic membrane, or the ossicles (i.e., middle ear bones), and that means sound waves can’t reach the cochlea (i.e., the organ of hearing) as effectively. With a conductive hearing loss, the patient requires a louder intensity of sound for the sound wave to reach the cochlea.
Conductive hearing loss has several causes. A common one is otitis media, or an ear infection of the middle ear. Due to the fluid build-up behind the eardrum, some sound is blocked from traveling through the middle ear, and the patient requires louder intensities to hear adequately. In addition, conductive hearing loss can be a result of a ruptured eardrum, impacted earwax, swimmer’s ear, a foreign body in the ear canal, allergies, a fusion of the middle ear bones, or the absence or malformation of part of the ear (e.g., outer ear, the ear canal, or middle ear).
Treatment for a conductive hearing loss typically begins with medical intervention. A physician may prescribe antibiotics; in other cases, an otolaryngologist will perform surgery. If medical intervention has been performed and there are no further medical options to improve the hearing loss, it can be treated with amplification. Hearing aids are often very successful, as it solves the need for increased volume to hear speech and other sounds.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
A sensorineural hearing loss is the most common hearing loss, and it emerges as a result of damage to the inner ear (the cochlea) or to the auditory nerve. Often, the delicate hair cells in the cochlea are irreparable once damaged. At this point in time, there is nothing medically that can be provided or surgically corrected to restore the patient’s hearing. A sensorineural hearing loss is considered permanent. Patients with a sensorineural hearing loss frequently complain about the clarity of speech, even when the volume is loud enough.
Just like conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss has several etiologies. Aging is one of the many causes. A sensorineural hearing loss can also be acquired through illnesses, drugs that are toxic to hearing, head trauma, exposure to loud noises, hereditary hearing loss, or a malformation of the inner ear.
While there is no medical cure for a sensorineural hearing loss, amplification will provide a patient with access to the soft sounds they cannot hear. Depending on the severity of the loss, hearing aids, personal listening devices, or a cochlear implant can successfully help patients access the sounds they are missing.
Mixed Hearing Loss
Mixed hearing loss, as the name suggests, is a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. Essentially, this means there is damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve, along with a condition that is affecting the middle ear or ear canal.
Treatment varies for mixed hearing loss. The conductive component is medically treated before the sensorineural component is addressed. Amplification may be an option, but it depends on the severity of the hearing loss.
Early intervention and treatment for any hearing loss will provide the best prognosis for any patient. Typically, all hearing loss is considered treatable; the plan will vary based on the type and severity of the loss.
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