Saturday, May 19, 2012

Do You Hear What I Hear?

On May 4, I wrote about vision and vision problems (May Is Health Vision Month). A friend asked me to address hearing and hearing problems sometime this month, so here is that post.

Like our vision, we tend not to think about our hearing unless there is a problem - but then it is too late. The human ear can put up with a lot, but it's also quite delicate, so you need to take care of it.

How does the ear work?

The miracle of sound is, to me, just that. How does the tap of my keyboard translate to the sound that I hear?

The ear has three parts, the outer part, which you see, the middle, and the inner. All play an important role. The outer ear acts like a funnel, collecting the sounds and funnelling them into the middle part of the ear. The part you see is the pinna and this goes into the ear canal.

The ear canal leads to the ear drum, which is where the middle ear begins. The drum vibrates in reaction to the sound waves. These vibrations are transferred to the three tiniest bones in your body, called the ossicles. The first bone, the malleus, is shaped like a hammer. The sound moves from the malleus to the incus, which is shaped like an anvil. Finally, the sound moves again from the incus to the stapes, which looks like a stirrup.

Once the sound has travelled through the middle ear, it reaches the inner ear, where the nerves take over. The vibrations enter the cochlea, which is a small, curled, fluid-filled tube. You can also find microscopic sized hairs lining the cochlea, which also vibrate with the sound, transferring this to the nerves, which go to the brain and tell you that you've heard a sound.

If there is any disruption in the any of the ear sections, your hearing can be temporarily or permanently affected.

Ear Wax

The most common problem with the outer ear is the build up of wax. This wax is perfectly normal and should not be removed. It is your ear's defence mechanism against things that shouldn't be in there. Cotton swabs and similar products are NOT for wax removal. If you use these, you run two risks: pushing the wax deeper and more compacted into the ear canal and/or two slipping and pushing the stick deeper into the ear, rupturing the ear drum.

For most people, ear wax isn't a problem, but some people do have too much of it. If this happens, it should be removed by a doctor or a nurse who has been trained to do so. ENTs (ear, nose and throat doctors) have a saying: never put anything in your ear that is smaller than your elbow.

People who wear hearing aids may be prone to impacted wax. This is due to the aid pressing into the ear canal constantly.


Infections can happen in the outer ear, most commonly, swimmers ear. Piercings in the lobe or pinna may also become infected if they are not cared for properly when they are fresh or if the holes get too irritated from the jewelry.

If the infection is in the mid-ear, otitis media, this could become serious if the infections are frequent.


The ear drum can be punctured by inserting an object too deep into the ear, but also in other situations, such as severe infections or even on an airplane if the pressure is too hard on the ear.

The ears can be injured in other ways as well. Consistent very loud noise can destroy the tiny hairs in the ear, making it impossible for the sound waves to be moved along, for example.

Getting your hearing checked

If you suspect you have some hearing loss, the first thing to do is speak with your doctor. If there is cause for concern, you may be sent for a hearing test. If the test shows some hearing loss, you may then be sent on for a further hearing evaluation.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has a handy check list that can help give you an idea if you should go for a hearing test. There is also a good explanation of the various hearing tests available.

It's never too late to prevent further damage to your hearing. If you use earplugs to listen to music, be aware of how loud the volume is. If you are in a noisy environment, wear protective equipment. Treat your ears with care because you may not notice a slow decline in hearing, but once it's gone, it's not likely you'll get it back.

No comments: