The Causes and Treatment of Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Man holding hand to ear struggling to hear

Your chances of developing hearing loss at some point in your life are regrettably quite high, even more so as you get older. In the US, 48 million individuals report some degree of hearing loss, including nearly two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.

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

The three forms of hearing loss

Generally speaking, there are three forms of hearing loss:

  1. Conductive hearing loss
  2. Sensorineural hearing loss
  3. Mixed hearing loss (a combination of sensorineural and conductive)

Conductive hearing loss is less common and is triggered by some type of obstruction in the outer or middle ear. Frequent 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 type of hearing loss is the most common and makes up about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It is triggered by damage to the hair cells (nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves running from the inner ear to the brain.

With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter the outer ear, strike the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, as a result of destruction to the hair cells (the tiny nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is provided to the brain for processing is weakened.

This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and normally affects speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Also, in contrast to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss tends to be permanent and cannot be remedied with medication or surgery.

Causes and symptoms

Sensorineural hearing loss has a range of 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, direct exposure to loud noise and aging, account for the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news because it suggests that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, of course, but you can regulate the collective exposure to sound over your lifetime).

To fully understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that injury to the nerve cells of hearing almost always develops very gradually. Therefore, the symptoms progress so gradually that it can be near impossible to detect.

A slight amount of hearing loss every year will not be very detectable to you, but after several years it will be very apparent to your friends and family. So although you may believe that everyone is mumbling, it might be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.

Here are a few of the symptoms to watch for:

  • Trouble understanding speech
  • Trouble following conversions, especially with more than one person
  • Turning up the television and radio volume to excess levels
  • Constantly asking others to repeat themselves
  • Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Feeling excessively tired at the end of the day

If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you may have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to schedule a hearing exam. Hearing tests are quick and painless, and the sooner you treat hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to retain.

Prevention and treatment

Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is great news because it is by far the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the United States could be prevented by adopting some simple protective measures.

Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with sustained 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 harm your hearing.

Here are a few tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:

  • Apply the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the max volume. Also consider buying noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
  • Protect your ears at concerts – 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 use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that preserve the quality of the music.
  • Protect your ears at the workplace – if you work in a high-volume occupation, check with your employer about its hearing protection program.
  • Safeguard your hearing at home – Several household and leisure activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Make sure that you always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.

If you currently have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can substantially improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can protect against any further consequences of hearing loss.

If you think that you may have sensorineural hearing loss, book your quick and simple hearing test today!