How does hearing loss happen?

And what’s the big deal if it does?

Martin Jurek, Campbell River Hearing Clinic

Two extraordinary things happened last month: First, I wrote an article for the Mirror (our local newspaper) about how our ears work, somehow thinking it would be titillating reading to... well, anyone.

But what happened next was truly amazing – you actually read it! Better yet, judging by all the comments I received, you (somewhat inexplicably) loved it. And so, bolstered by your kind words and an unnatural infatuation with all things aural, I’ve decided to write this, the next logical article.

How does hearing loss happen?

First, a quick recap of our aural anatomy: The outer ear funnels sound into the middle ear, where three tiny bones mechanically amplify and transmit it to the cochlea, or inner ear. The cochlea then transmits the sound signals to the brain via the cochlear nerve.

As with any complicated process, there are vulnerabilities every step of the way. Though hearing loss can stem from the outer ear (e.g. wax build-up or narrowing of the ear canal) or middle ear (e.g. burst eardrum or damage to those three bones), the most common type stems from the cochlea, which contains thousands of microscopic hair cells nestled within a warm bath of cochlear fluid. This sort of hearing loss can be caused by:

1. Aging – Over time, the cochlear hair cells that transmit sound signals to the brain can become damaged. Since these hair cells never regrow, this incremental damage slowly decreases our hearing sensitivity.

2. Noise – Exposure to loud noises, either acutely (such as an explosion) or chronically (such as working for years in a loud factory or continually listening to loud music) can also damage hair cells. Though the medical profession has brought us awesome names like Exploding Head Syndrome, Maple Syrup Urine Disease, Smoking Stool Syndrome and, my personal favourite, Jumping Frenchmen of Maine, hearing loss caused by noise exposure is unadventurously known as simply Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL).

3. Pretty much anything else – Including stroke, infection, side-effects of medication, head injury or the incessant gnawing of the cochlear nerve by microscopic ear gremlins. OK, that last one has never been documented – but that doesn't mean it can’t happen.

So what if I have hearing loss? I hate pop music anyway.

Sure, a decrease in hearing sensitivity helps you ignore the rapid degeneration of modern music as it plunges ever deeper into a cacophonous cesspool of electronic drums and synthesizers.

On the other hand, we depend on our hearing for many of life’s simple pleasures that we often take for granted. Things like the satisfying crackle of a campfire, or the gentle lapping of waves against a pebbled beach. Hearing loss can even start to subtly strip us of the things we hold most dear – like our relationships.

Because hearing loss often strikes the high frequencies first, many people start missing soft consonant sounds, meaning words art to ound ike this. Deciphering speech that sounds like a Bob Dylan song takes a tremendous amount of energy, although it occurs so gradually that you likely won’t notice it as such. Instead, you’ll just feel tired and irritable, avoiding conversations as much as possible and, eventually, retreating into social isolation.

You’ll complain that your spouse is mumbling, your spouse will accuse you of not listening, and so goes the relationship.

OK fine, so it’s a big deal. How do I know if I have hearing loss?

Here are six possible warning signs that your hearing may not be as sharp as it once was:

  1. Your spouse, friends or co-workers accuse you of “selective hearing”
  2. You think people around you are mumbling
Your family complains that the TV is too loud when you watch it
You find the noise of the TV or radio irritating when it’s on in the background
You have a hard time understanding children or people with accents

  6. You can’t hear anything

I challenge you . . .

The holidays are a joyous time filled with the laughter of children, the trumpeting of Christmas carols and the boisterous din of a warm, family-filled home. Add to that the exuberant shredding of wrapping paper and the screaming of grandchildren crashing hard from their Christmas morning chocolate buzz, and you get some of the most challenging listening conditions of the year.

This holiday season, I want you to pay attention to how you feel during the festivities. Are you fully engaged in the conversations around you and feeling merrier than an eggnog-swilling elf singing Deck the Halls while hurtling through the winter sky behind a crimson-nosed reindeer? Or does trying to follow a conversation amidst all the excitement leave you exhausted, annoyed and irritable?

Don’t get me wrong – the fact that you opt to sit quietly by yourself rather than play yet another game of Cranium doesn’t necessarily mean you’re losing your hearing. Nor does feeling annoyed at your family gathering – who knows, your family could be genuinely annoying. It does mean, however, that you should at least consider booking a free hearing assessment.

Why do I write these articles?

Do I write these hoping you’ll be so entertained that you’ll feel compelled to purchase hearing aids from me just so I can go buy those fancy new pedals for my mountain bike? Partly, yes. But primarily, it’s because I love hearing people say “Thank you, Martin, for changing my life.”

Something I hear far too often, though, is “I should have done this a long time ago.” If I can help you improve your quality of life sooner rather than later, this article has served its purpose.

If you suspect your hearing, or that of someone you know, might be less than ideal, knowing where to turn for answers is more than half the battle. We’ve provided a few resources to get you started on this website, and we’d be happy to chat more about it if and when you’re ready.

Simply call 250-914-3200 or stop in at 780-D 13th Avenue.  No pressure. No judgment. Just honest answers.

Merry Christmas!