Conductive hearing loss

What is conductive hearing loss?

Think you suffer from Conductive hearing loss?

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Our ears are incredible devices. 

Yet it’s easy to forget how intricate and finely balanced our sense of hearing is. Partly due to the fact our outer ear is far more robust than our eyes (which we tend to fiercely protect, as even the slightest grit can cause us pain). Do you pull your ear when you’re thinking? We certainly wouldn’t do that with our eyeballs or eye lids!

Yet beneath the surface, the tiny parts of our ears are complex collectors, transporters and processors, and they can throw up a wide range of issues. Most of which result in hearing difficulties, such as conductive hearing loss.

Signs and symptoms of conductive hearing loss

There’s a misconception that problems with hearing revolve around degrees of deafness, in terms of the level of sound. In fact, there are various issues that can impact on the quality of the sounds you hear. 

Conductive hearing loss can present in many different ways, some of which can creep up on you over time. It may take a while to realise that you’re missing out on some types of sound, or your hearing is unpleasantly muffled. Are certain things indecipherable, while others are clear? Do you hear much better in one ear than the other?

You may even find that though you can hear someone speaking, the individual’s tones and the natural rise and fall of their voice are dull.

Another symptom of conductive hearing issues is pain in one or both ears, or a constant feeling of “pressure”. You may even find your ear or ears smell unpleasant! 

The signs that someone is struggling with hearing issues of this kind include tilting their head to listen, or squinting and frowning as they try to decipher what they can hear. A loved one with conductive hearing loss could also keep asking speakers to repeat things, yet they hear some sounds well. 

Let’s move on to why this can happen, and what steps to take if you suspect that you – or a loved one – have conductive hearing loss.

This article refers to your ear and hearing processes as your “auditory system”.

What is conductive hearing loss?

First, here is more detail on what defines conductive hearing problems.

“Conduction” is a word meaning something invisible, being transported. So, it’s used in relation to heat and energy transfer, for example. When it comes to your auditory system, the invisible thing that needs to be transported is sound.

In a healthy and fully functioning ear, the outer area scoops up sound waves, which then pass by a process of conduction through the middle ear and eardrum, to your inner ear. Conductive hearing loss means that there is some form of interruption or blockage in this process, and sound waves are not being carried properly to their destination.

What causes conductive hearing loss?

There can be various underlying issues which result in conductive hearing loss. The interruption to the sound wave transfer can happen at various points within the auditory system.

Outer ear

If the interruption is in the outer ear, it could be something as simple as a build up of earwax. Or, there could be something else in your external ear canal blocking sound!

Sometimes ear infections can cause your outer ear to become irritated and swollen, which impedes sound waves from travelling effectively.

Some of the more serious causes are tumours or abnormal bone growths in the outer ear canal. It is also possible to be born with deficits in this part of your auditory system (known as congenital problems). These include narrow or blocked ear canals, or a situation in which the outer ear structure is badly formed.

Middle ear

The reason why sound waves are not travelling through your auditory system unhindered could be a problem within your middle ear. 

One of the most common causes of conductive hearing loss – especially in young children – is a build up of fluid in the middle ear.

This part of the auditory system includes the Eustachian tube, which is 35 mm long, usually filled with air and provides a vital connective service. The level of pressure inside this tube is important, and delicately balanced to pass vibrations to the membranes of the ear.

Anything that affects this pressure level will “dull” sound quality. The Eustachian tube can start to malfunction due to allergies, infections or tumours, for instance.

Incidentally, there are times when you may experience temporary conductive hearing problems, due to a spontaneous disruption in the air pressure in your Eustachian tube. This can happen when you travel by air for example, or you have a severe cold. In this situation, resetting your inner ear pressure can involve yawning, swallowing or chewing.

It is also possible to perforate (make a hole or tear in) your ear drum. This is a crucial membrane for conducting sound waves. Even the presence of scar tissue on your ear drum can be enough to create hearing difficulties.

Some people experience conductive hearing loss due to abnormalities in the bones or membranes in the middle ear.

Inner ear

If sound travels effectively from the outer ear, through the intricately balanced middle ear, it should then be transferred to the inner ear. 

This part of the process involves your eardrum, and three tiny bones in your middle ear, vibrating. Cells in your ear then turn this vibrational energy into electrical impulses. Your auditory nerve takes these electrical messages to your brain, where the sound is understood.

The time it takes for all this to happen is immeasurably small. However, if the structure of your inner ear fails, then this too can cause conductive hearing loss. Problems in this location tend to be trickier to treat.

You may have also heard of something called “mixed hearing loss”. This is when there is an interruption in the way sound travels through you ear, but also an issue referred to as “sensorineural” hearing loss. Sensorineural refers to damage to the inner ear which reduces its ability to process sounds. This could be the result of a trauma (like a bad knock to the head) or severe viral infections like measles, for example.

How can conductive hearing loss be treated?

Treatment for conductive hearing problems will depend on the cause and severity of the issue.

Solutions range from surgical intervention, to medicines, and also include discreet and easy to use devices to address the hearing loss effectively.

For example, antibiotic drops in your outer ear, or medicine to treat deeper infections, can sometimes rectify your hearing. 

In many cases, with the right diagnosis and support, it is possible to restore your hearing to a normal level, even with long term conductive hearing difficulties. This means that your speech and sound perception would improve substantially, making social occasions and indeed everyday life much better.

The important thing is not to hesitate and “hope” it sorts itself out. It is far better to get your hearing tested and to find the cause of your conductive hearing issues.

What to do if you are concerned with your hearing

If you have experienced the signs and symptoms of conductive hearing loss – or any other issue that involves the quality or level of sound – what should you do?

Many people find the prospect of discussing hearing problems uncomfortable, or they become anxious. Also, there are times when people prefer to discuss health concerns privately, in a “safe” environment.

For these reasons, Hearing Solutions UK offers free audiology visits to your home. These no cost hearing tests are discrete and professional, to provide you with peace of mind and a swift diagnosis if there are issues. Our highly trained audiologists can also discuss solutions with you, when you need help to hear properly. This includes finding the best device for conductive hearing loss or any other auditory problems. 

There really is no need to “suffer in silence” when free help for hearing difficulties is readily available.

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