We’ve all been in loud situations that we’d rather not be a part of, like pounding music, noisy people, and even the overwhelming grind of machinery. These environments often leave a ringing in your ears, and you find yourself unable to communicate with the people around you. For some, this only happens every once in a while, but for many individuals with hearing loss, this is an everyday reality.
Hearing loss can be caused by many different factors and it can take different forms. In this article, we lay out the differences between conductive, sensorineural and mixed hearing loss, as well as causes, symptoms, and treatments.
Your ears are very complex organs, and they have to work hard in many ways so that you can hear the world around you. To do this, your ear is split into three sections:
- The Outer Ear
- The Middle Ear
- The Inner Ear
Your outer ear (1) collects the sounds around you and funnels them into your ear canal, which causes your eardrum to vibrate. This vibration shakes the tiny bones (called ossicles) in your middle ear (2), which helps move the sounds into the cochlea of your inner ear (3). Your cochlea processes these sounds and sends them up the auditory nerve to your brain, where you interpret what you’re hearing.
If you’d like to watch a quick video to see this in action, you can click here.
It’s quite a complex process! So it’s no surprise that hearing loss isn’t just a single thing that can happen to anyone. In fact, it can be caused by problems occurring in any of the three parts of your ear, and sometimes more than one part can be affected at the same time. This is why we classify hearing loss into three main types and why a hearing test done by an audiologist is necessary to discover which type you have.
Conductive Hearing Loss
If your hearing loss is caused by problems in your outer ear (1) or middle ear (2), then you have what is called a “conductive hearing loss.” It occurs when something is blocking the sound from passing through your ear properly, which makes it difficult for you to hear. Worse, this blockage can be in your outer ear (1) and your middle ear (2) at the same time.
Symptoms of Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss usually affects your ability to perceive the loudness of sounds, and your symptoms will depend on which part/s of your ear is affected. You probably have a conductive hearing loss if:
- You find soft sounds difficult to hear
- The speech of people talking sounds muffled
- It is difficult to hear people when they talk to you
- Your own voice sounds different to you
- There is a pain in one or both of your ears
- You feel pressure in one or both of your ears
Causes of Conductive Hearing Loss
It’s important to figure out what’s causing your conductive hearing loss and what sections of your ear are affected. Your audiologist will be able to do this through a hearing test, though the most common causes include:
- A buildup of wax in your ear
- Malformation at birth
- Malformation due to accident
- Chronic ear infections
- Growths inside your ear
- Tumors inside your ear
- Broken eardrum
- Foreign object in your ear
Treating Conductive Hearing Loss
Thankfully, this condition can most often be reversed and managed effectively with the right kind of treatment, which will be based on your hearing test results and which part/s of your ear is affected. Common solutions include:
- Medical treatments like antibiotics to clear ear infections
- Surgical treatments like growth removal to clear your ear canal and middle ear
- Traditional hearing aids are not commonly used to treat conductive hearing loss; they make sounds louder but for many individuals, that does not solve the underlying problem
- Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and hearing aids are provided in certain situations.
- An example of this would be a child who is born with a malformed outer ear, and surgery to correct the malformation is not possible. In this instance, a specialized hearing aid is known as “bone-anchored hearing aid” could be used to bypass the outer ear and middle ear to send the sound signals straight to the inner ear
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
If your hearing loss is caused by problems in your inner ear (3) or auditory nerve, then you have what is called a “sensorineural hearing loss.” This happens your cochlea or auditory nerve is damaged. There are two sub-types of sensorineural hearing loss:
- Sudden sensorineural hearing loss – which is a quick decline in hearing
- Progressive sensorineural hearing loss – which is a slow decline in hearing over time
Symptoms of Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss usually affects your ability to perceive the loudness and quality of sounds. Symptoms differ from person-to-person; however, you probably have it if:
- You are no longer sensitive to soft sounds
- It’s difficult for you to tell the difference between speech sounds
- Sounds aren’t as loud to you as they are to other people
- You struggle to hear in loud environments
- You have tinnitus (ringing in ears)
- You experience bouts of vertigo (extreme dizziness)
Causes of Sensorineural Hearing Loss
The cause of your sensorineural hearing loss is dependent on the sub-type that you have. The damage is generally permanent, and the most common causes for each sub-type are:
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss
- Viral infection
- Head trauma
- Certain drugs and medications
Progressive sensorineural hearing loss
- Noise exposure
- Chemical exposure
- Genetic conditions
- Some drugs and medications
Treating Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Because sensorineural hearing loss can’t be reversed, treatment focuses on helping you “adapt” to this permanent form of hearing loss rather than “fixing” it by using:
- Hearing aids to make sounds louder and easier to hear
- Cochlear implants for people who meet the strict criteria
- Hearing protection to prevent further damage in loud environments
- Hearing aids to “mask” the sound of tinnitus (ringing in ears) with environmental noise
- Corticosteroids prescribed by a doctor if the cause of the hearing loss is viral in origin
Mixed Hearing Loss
Mixed hearing loss is a tricky kind of hearing loss because it’s caused by a conductive and a sensorineural hearing loss happening at the same time.
An example would be an elderly man who wears hearing aids (for his sensorineural hearing loss) and gets a severe ear infection that blocks his middle ear (causing a conductive hearing loss). Because the man has a sensorineural hearing loss and a conductive hearing loss at the same time, we can say that he has a mixed hearing loss.
The symptoms and causes of mixed hearing loss are the same as conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss, except they occur together, which is why you need to see an audiologist and have a formal hearing test done.
Treating Mixed Hearing Loss
The conductive hearing loss is always treated first when you have mixed hearing loss so that the underlying cause can be treated. Once the conductive hearing loss is gone, your audiologist will be able to assess the severity and cause of your sensorineural hearing loss and provide the appropriate treatment.
And There You Have It!
Hopefully, this brief overview has given you some valuable insight into the different types of hearing losses, their symptoms, causes, and most common treatment methods.
We have plenty more articles for you to check out, and you can always contact us with any queries or concerns that you may have.
*Please note, the information listed in our blog, posts and forums is not and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult with your doctor for diagnostics, treatment and medical information and advice.