How Your Ears Work and How to Protect Them

January 07, 2020

01.07 - AM

There is an incredibly complex series of processes taking place inside your head right now? It involves wave energy conversion, fluid dynamics, frequency resonance, mechanical force amplification, and electrochemical signal translation, all happening faster than the speed of sound! You don’t even need to think about it. In fact, if you did have to consciously control these processes, you’d completely lose what they give you: The ability to hear. 

How your ears work

People who have always been able to hear tend to take this amazing sense for granted. But, if you take a few moments to learn the intricate steps involved in gathering, converting, and interpreting soundwaves from the environment, you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation for your humble ears. Watch this brief video to get an overview:

As you can see, hearing is a mind-blowingly complicated process. It involves a number of tiny bones and tissues, all working in perfect harmony to accurately move soundwaves from your outer to your inner ear. Then, the sounds are converted to electrical impulses that are sent to the brain, where they are interpreted and given meaning based on input you’re pulling in from other senses as well as what you’ve learned or experienced in the past. 

The end result is what we call “hearing:” the culmination of collecting, converting, analyzing, and understanding the sounds of your environment, all happening in a fraction of a second, thousands of times a day. 

It stands to reason that such a complex and delicate process leaves a lot of room for potential problems. While both congenital and acquired deafness is rare (affecting 0.1 to 0.4 percent of the U.S. population), partial hearing loss as a result of illness or injury is about 30 times as common. And, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates at least 60 percent of non-congenital hearing loss is preventable

That’s why it’s so vital to protect the delicate system that allows you to hear. Here’s how to do it:

How to protect yourself from preventable hearing loss

The WHO lists the following varied causes of acquired hearing loss:

  • Infectious diseases including meningitis, measles and mumps
  • Chronic ear infections
  • Collection of fluid in the ear (otitis media)
  • Use of certain medicines, such as those used in the treatment of neonatal infections, malaria, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and cancers
  • Injury to the head or ear
  • Excessive noise, including occupational noise such as that from machinery and explosions
  • Recreational exposure to loud sounds such as that from use of personal audio devices at high volumes and for prolonged periods of time 
  • Regular attendance at concerts, nightclubs, bars and sporting events
  • Aging, in particular due to degeneration of sensory cells
  • Wax or foreign bodies blocking the ear canal

These causes can be combined into three basic buckets: 

  1. Illnesses, injuries, and treatments
  2. Loud noises
  3. Natural causes

All of these are preventable to some extent. 

How to prevent hearing loss from illness, injury, and treatments

Illnesses

Since some illnesses that lead to hearing loss are viral infections with readily available vaccines, getting adequately vaccinated is a smart first line of defense against potential hearing loss. In some cases, exposure to certain diseases during pregnancy can increase the chances of the baby developing congenital deafness. Diseases that can lead to hearing loss and can be avoided through vaccination include: 

  • Mumps
  • Measles
  • Malaria
  • Meningococcal meningitis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Varicella (chickenpox)
  • Rubella (especially dangerous en utero)

Other common conditions that have led to hearing loss include chronic ear infections and sinus infections. Even the common cold can potentially impact your hearing if fluid buildup and pressure combine to do physical damage to the delicate bones and tissues in the middle and inner ears. It’s surprisingly common to rupture an eardrum by sneezing when sinus pressure is high. 

Treatments

Another potential medical danger is the use of drugs that are known to potentially harm a user’s hearing as an unfortunate side effect. In most cases, the chances of developing significant hearing loss from these ototoxic medications is very low. And, since they treat conditions as serious as malaria, high blood pressure, and cancer, the benefits may very well outweigh that risk. 

However, it’s always wise to discuss the possible side effects of any drug therapy and make an informed decision. If you can safely avoid an ototoxic drug and still successfully treat whatever ails you, why not do so? 

Injuries

Finally, hearing loss can result from various head injuries as well as injuries directly affecting the outer or inner ear. While it’s not possible to completely eliminate all risk of unexpected accidents, some basic safety tips can prevent the most common injuries that lead to hearing loss:

  • Never insert an object any further into your ear canal than a common earbud-style headphone speaker. (Even a Q-tip can rupture your eardrum! See “Keep your ear canals clean” below.)
  • Always wear appropriate head protection when doing anything where a head injury is a possibility, such as playing contact sports, skating, skateboarding, snowboarding, skiing, or riding bicycles or motorcycles. 
  • Always wear a seatbelt when driving or riding in any vehicle, and be sure any object that can become airborne in case of an accident is properly stowed and secured. 

How to prevent hearing loss from loud noises

Brief exposure to very loud noise or long-term exposure to elevated noise are the most common preventable causes of hearing loss worldwide. Most people simply underestimate the volume of the sounds they voluntarily expose themselves to. Or, they mistake their body’s incredible healing capabilities with safety. 

As described in the video above, soundwaves are essentially waves of pressure carried through the air. When these pressure waves pass through your ear canal, they physically move the eardrum and connected bones. The louder a sound is (measured in decibels or dB), the greater impact the soundwave has on this delicate mechanism. 

Unfortunately, your ears can’t close themselves off from loud noises, nor can your eardrum decide not to register a sound that’s too loud. It will simply keep trying to keep up with what it’s exposed to until it can’t anymore. 

Then, it won’t. Perhaps forever. 

Anything above 85 dB is loud enough to cause damage. The longer you’re exposed to noise above that level, the greater the chances it’s going to have a detrimental effect. Here’s a handy chart (courtesy of Healthlink British Columbia) showing how common sounds from your environment compare to each other in terms of decibel level:

 

Noise

Average decibels (dB)

Leaves rustling, soft music, whisper

30

Average home noise

40

Normal conversation, background music

60

Office noise, inside car at 60 mph

70

Vacuum cleaner, average radio

75

Heavy traffic, window air conditioner, noisy restaurant, power lawn mower


80–89 (sounds above 85 dB are harmful)

Subway, shouted conversation

90–95

Boom box, ATV, motorcycle

96–100

School dance

101–105

Chainsaw, leaf blower, snowmobile

106–115

Sports crowd, rock concert, loud symphony

120–129

Stock car races

130

Gun shot, siren at 100 feet

140

 

It’s possible for your hearing to be harmed by one-time exposure to an incredibly loud noise, such as a powerful explosion, but that’s rare. Most hearing loss is caused by repeated exposure to noise above 85 dB for long periods of time, over many years. This is very common, especially in individuals who work jobs where exposure to loud noise is commonplace, such as construction workers, musicians, and soldiers. 

It’s regrettably easy to get used to loud noise, such that you may not even realize your environment could be damaging your hearing. That’s why it’s important to recognize the warning signs. Does anyplace you frequent share any or all of these qualities?

  • You have difficulty carrying on a conversation over the sound
  • The sound makes your ears hurt or causes headaches
  • Your ears are ringing or other sounds seem muffled after you leave

In all those cases, the noise level is dangerously high and repeated exposure will cause damage to your hearing. 

Fortunately, preventing hearing loss due to loud noise is simple: 

  1. When you’re in control of the volume — when you’re listening to music or watching TV, for instance — keep the volume at a comfortably low level and control other sources of noise so you don’t feel the need to continually turn the volume up. 
  2. Wear ear protection anytime you know you are likely to be exposed to loud noise. This includes when you’re using power tools, mowing the lawn, attending a concert, and especially while you’re at work if you work in a dangerously noisy environment.

How to prevent hearing loss from natural causes

Thus far, science hasn’t provided any surefire ways to prevent the natural loss of hearing acuity that affects most people to some extent from middle age on. It happens because the tiny hairs described in the video that are integral to the entire process of hearing start wearing down and becoming less sensitive over time. 

Don’t make it worse

The best thing you can do is to not make things worse or speed up the process by following all the tips outlined above. 

Keep your ear canals clean

You’ll also need to keep your ear canals clear of excess earwax, which can block sound if it becomes impacted inside the ear canal. Like so many other bodily functions, the production and recycling of earwax can become a little unbalanced as you age and excess wax can become more of an issue than it once was. 

If you’re following the rules above, you’ll refrain from jamming a Q-tip into your ear canal to clean it out. Healthline offers an in-depth look at how to clean your ears safely

Get your hearing checked regularly

Finally, be sure to include regular hearing checkups into your healthcare routine. Audiologists recommend a standard screening every year. If you’re already facing hearing loss to some degree, your audiologist may recommend a different schedule. 

Follow these practical tips to be sure your amazing ability to hear stays as clear as possible for as long as possible.

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