When hearing becomes difficult, it decreases your quality of life. Hearing is a critical part of the communication of important information as well as a primary means of connecting with family, friends, and neighbors. Significant damage comes to these relationships as a result of hearing loss, and those suffering from it come to me seeking solutions. One part of finding solutions is identifying the specific type of hearing loss so that I can provide the best form of treatment. Conductive hearing loss is the most common type I encounter.
Symptoms of Conductive Hearing Loss
Reduction in sound clarity is the primary symptom associated with conductive hearing loss, according to the University of California, San Francisco Health. Sounds, even your own voice, seem far away in the distance, unclear or muffled. My patients also present symptoms that include pain or increased pressure in their ears.
Symptom identification is not always immediate with conductive hearing loss. The main reason is that we use a lot of non-verbal cues and gestures during conversations to understand what a person is saying. However, difficulty hearing phone conversations and the need to increase radio volume, both absent of visual cues, provide the essential clues connected to chronic or permanent conductive hearing loss.
Defining Conductive Hearing Loss
To identify any hearing loss requires an understanding of the necessary process of hearing. Sound waves from the air enter into the hearing pathway to reach the brain for processing. The hearing pathway of the auditory system is divided into three sections with each playing a role in the transmission of sounds to the brain, including:
- Outer Ear. The design of the outer ear serves to trap sounds and gather together sound waves from the surrounding air. Once captured, the outer ear funnels sound waves into the ear canal. The ear canal begins the conductive process by transporting captured sound waves to the middle ear.
- Middle Ear. Coming from the ear canal, sound waves run into the thin cone-shaped barrier known as the tympanic membrane or eardrum. This tightly stretched membrane separates the outer and middle ear. Similar to the surface of a drum, sound waves striking the eardrum causes it to vibrate. These vibrations activate three tiny bones located in the tympanic cavity, which react in sequence and transmit the vibrations to the inner ear.
- Inner Ear. The construction of the inner ear includes a maze of canals and the cochlea. These structures serve to convert the vibrations arriving from the middle ear into electrical signals. The electrical signals produced come to the auditory nerve system, which transfers them to the brain. The brain processes these signals into recognizable sound.
Common Causes of Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss identifies the cause of hearing loss in association with some form of obstruction or limitation of the conductive processes along the hearing pathway. The common causes can be relatively minor and easy to correct or more serious and complex to treat. Causes are usually present within the outer and middle ear and include:
- Cerumen Obstruction (blockage due to buildup of earwax)
- Inflammation from an Ear Infection
- Rupture or Perforation of the Eardrum
- Cysts, Tumors, and Growths
- Diseases of Conditions Damaging the Bone Structures of the Middle Ear
Diagnosing Conductive Hearing Loss
Several tests help in the identification and diagnosis of the cause or causes associated with conductive hearing loss, including three different processes.
The first part of diagnosing hearing loss includes a visual examination of the outer ear, ear canal, and eardrum. An auditory professional uses an audio scope, an instrument with a light and a magnifying viewer, to visually inspect the outer ear. This visual inspection allows the audiologist to identify physical causes like earwax buildup, inflammation, growths, and damage to the eardrum. In some cases, this visual examination provides adequate information for diagnosis.
You probably remember the screening tests you had in school. I use a similar test to help diagnose hearing loss. The process includes isolation of the examinee in a soundproof booth or room. Once isolated, a set of high-tech headphones are placed on his or her head. The audiologist uses an audiometer to send a series of tones at different volume levels into the headphones. As the examinee responds to the tones, the audiometer records and produces the data necessary for the audiologist to identify reduced hearing capacity.
When audiometer testing identifies hearing loss, and visual inspection fails to produce a physical cause within the outer ear, audiologists proceed to the next level of examination and diagnosis. A CT scan provides additional information relating to the root of hearing loss by allowing physicians to examine the structures of the middle ear and identify any damage that might contribute to conductive hearing loss.
Available Treatment Options for Conductive Hearing Loss
Hearing Loss Association of America identifies several corrective measures used in the treatment of conductive hearing loss. Routine surgeries or medications are often successful in reversing conductive hearing loss. Medicine provides a solution in cases where inflammation from infection is the cause. Routine, in-office procedures for clearing obstructions like earwax buildup or the removal of tumors or growths in the ear canal, provide a solution as well. Additional corrective procedures might include:
- fluid drainage using tubes
- eardrum repair
- repair of damaged middle ear bone structures
A cochlear implant is a more advanced procedure, which facilitates bypassing the damaged middle ear structures. Hearing aids provide an additional treatment solution for hearing loss of this type by amplifying sounds and improving sound transmission to push past conductive obstructions.
Conductive hearing loss results from the presence of some form of obstruction along the hearing pathway, preventing or reducing the effective transmission or conduction of sound waves from the outer ear to the brain. Symptom identification is not always immediate, so my advice is to include frequent screenings for hearing loss as a part of regular preventive health care. I provide testing aimed at identifying hearing loss of all types in the Acadian Hearing Center.
Contact us for a routine screening or if you notice that the sound of your voice or conversations seem muffled or off in the distance so that I can arrange an examination.
Dr. Heidi J. Sorrells obtained her doctorate degree from Salus University in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania and master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Minot State University in Minot, North Dakota. She is a certified Audiologist by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and she holds a Louisiana and a Texas Audiology License. Dr. Sorrells enjoys all aspects of working in a private practice audiology clinic but especially loves the challenges of vestibular (balance) assessment and rehabilitation.