Conductive hearing loss occurs when there is an issue with sound waves bouncing through the first two sections of the ear. If sound waves can’t get through the outer and middle ear, they can’t reach the processing and transmission section located in the inner ear.

The three parts of the ear permitting the conduction of sound waves are:

Outer Ear

Just as it sounds, the outer ear is all the area of your ear you can see and parts of the ear canal you can’t see. It consists of the cartilage that makes up the protruding ear, the surface just inside that you can see and the ear canal.

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The primary culprit for blocking soundwaves at this portion of the ear is wax. Wax is the ear’s method of protection against outside invaders. Since the ear is open to the outside world, things such as dust, bugs (gross but true) and other micro particulates can float in. Wax is the ear’s natural line of defense against these foreign bodies. It also keeps water from becoming lodged in the ear. Sometimes this is a successful deployment and other times it’s not.

Outer ear can Become Infected

Your outer ear can become infected. If you have ever been swimming and gotten water lodged in your ear, chances are you’ve had an infection of the outer ear. Swimmer’s Ear is the common term for an infection that afflicts this part of the ear. It is caused by bacteria washed in by water. Swimmer’s Ear, therefore, can hinder the conduction of sound waves through the cavity.

Other more rare occurrences such as tumor growth, abnormal bone location and growth and narrowing of the external ear canal, are problems and all can hinder sound waves in their journey.

Middle Ear

The name indeed reveals the location of this part of the ear. Sound traveling through the ear does so through the tympanic cavity or the middle part of the ear. It is a pressurized, air-filled space that is separated from the ear canal and outer ear by the eardrum. The pressure is maintained through the Eustachian tubes.

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The middle ear is the most common source of ear infections, especially among children. The infection causes swelling which blocks the pathway of sound through the eardrum. The eardrum can also become punctured and suffer serious injury. Such an injury does more damage than just hindering sound wave movement.

The three tiny bones reasonable for conducting sound and bouncing it around and off the eardrum are located in the middle ear.

Common afflictions to this portion of the ear include the following infections or conditions:

What is Otitis Media

Otitis media is an inflammation of the middle ear. It is often associated with the fluid being trapped and unable to flow out through the Eustachian tubes.

“Glue ear” or otitis media with effusion occurs when the middle ear canal becomes backed up with fluid that is unable to drain through the Eustachian tubes.

Barotrauma or uneven pressure in the ear is usually caused by a shift in environment and external pressure, such as being underwater or in an airplane.

As in the outer ear, there are rare instances of tumors, irregular bone development and other afflictions that may cause conductive hearing loss.

Inner Ear

The last stop a sound wave makes in the ear before it is funneled to the brain for processing is the inner ear. This portion of the ear contains the cochlea, the auditory nerve, and the vestibule which is responsible for maintaining balance throughout the body. If any of these elements becomes infected or is thrown off by an imbalance somewhere else in the ear, the entire sound processing system can be slowed or shut down.

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The ear is a well-oiled machine, and when functioning properly, is capable of funneling sound waves for interpretation by the brain. If something occurs during the transmission, as in the case of conductive hearing loss, the entire system breaks down. As a result, sounds, words, and frequencies either can’t be processed or are processed incorrectly.

What Are the Types of Conductive Hearing Loss?

When you have a conductive hearing loss, it doesn’t mean you can’t hear at all. Instead, it is the inability to hear certain types of sounds. For example, a soft sound may be all but impossible to understand while a louder sound may seem quieter than usual or muffled. This type of hearing loss is almost always temporary and typically resolves once the infection that is the cause of it is cleared up.

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Fluid trapped in the middle ear causes the most common type of conductive hearing loss. Due to the sensitive environment of the tympanic cavity, any fluid that is unable to escape through the Eustachian tubes causes infection and makes the processing of sound come to a screeching halt. The liquid trapped in the middle ear can be caused by a backup of mucus from allergies or the occurrence of a sinus infection.

Eustachian Tube Narrowing

Eustachian tube narrowing or malfunction plays a significant role in liquid retention at this particular spot in the ear. Sometimes the reduction is caused by swelling somewhere along the way. Swelling is common during times of infection. There are other instances though where the Eustachian tube is malformed or closed by repeated infections. In children, frequent ear infections can especially take a toll on the function and effectiveness of the Eustachian tubes. If a child has too many ear infections (chronic), a doctor may begin to fear that speech will be adversely affected as well as hearing loss may become more permanent.

Since infections of this nature are the most frequent type of conductive hearing loss, what is something that can be done to help ease the chances of significant damage?

 

Tubes

If a child (or adult) continues to present with ear infections, long-term consequences include permanent hearing loss and speech pattern issues, permanent scarring and pressurization issues. If infections are left unchecked and untreated for too long, the vestibule may be disturbed, and balance may become a problem.

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Myringotomy

The most common solution doctors today use to help the unrelenting ear infections of the middle ear is through a surgical procedure called a myringotomy. During this surgery, a tiny incision is made in the eardrum, and a tube is inserted in the hole. Within minutes, the hole reseals itself around the tube, holding it in place. The tube has tiny holes on either end which allow air and fluid to travel between the outer ear and the middle ear. It creates a vent of sorts to let the fluid drain and the air to circulate, thereby allowing pressurization to return to normal levels.

Over time, as the infections start to heal fully, the fluid drains slowly out of the tube in the eardrum and the Eustachian tubes can begin functioning correctly. As the pressure is restored and air flow through the Eustachian tubes is normalized, the eardrum will stop swelling and begin loosening its grip on the implanted tube. The entire process can take anywhere from a couple of months to a few years. It is typically slow and painless.

Implanted Tube

Once the implanted tube has served its purpose, it will fall out of the eardrum membrane and into the ear canal. Here, it is either retrieved by a doctor or falls out on its own. Either way, the entire process is useful in helping the middle ear rid itself of the fluid and infections that plague it. If the middle ear is free to transmit sound waves again, the hearing loss is reversed, and the auditory process continues as it should.

Since ridding the middle ear of fluid is the primary goal, a person with implanted tubes should not get their ears wet. This act might sabotage the system and set back recovery time. Make sure always to wear earplugs if in or near the water, and don’t allow the head to remain submerged for any length of time because water may get in through the nasal cavity, and the cycle will continue.

How Can Conductive Hearing Loss Be Prevented?

The primary factor affecting the conduction of sound waves through the ear is an infection. As such, the best way to keep the ear functioning properly is to be sure it is well cared for. Monitor any pressure changes and keep up a medical regime for combatting allergies and colds. If you go swimming, it is recommended you wear earplugs (even if you don’t have implanted tubes).

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Caring for Your Ears

Avoiding submerging your ears in water for any length of time will help cut the infection rate. Be diligent and at the first sign of a problem, see your doctor so the infection can be stopped or reversed as soon as possible. Finally, be open to suggestions from the doctor about improving your ear health.

The conductive hearing loss is a temporary condition that makes it sound like your ears are filled with cotton. In fact, they are probably filled with water, bacteria, wax and maybe some swelling and non-functioning Eustachian tubes. Regardless, caring for your ears and following a doctor’s recommendation can make all the difference in just how long the muffled sounds will continue.

 

Featured Image: CC0 Public Domain by Travis Isaacs via Flickr

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