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Deafness

What Is Deafness?

Deafness develops when sound waves are unable to reach the inner ear and a person loses the ability to hear. 

When sounds reach the ear, all three major ear areas — outer, middle and inner — work to convert sound wave vibrations into nerve signals that are processed by the brain. After sounds pass through the ear canal, they are amplified by the eardrum and small bones that help with hearing before they are transmitted to the cochlea in the inner ear. Lined with thousands of small hairs, the cochlea converts vibrations into different types of nerve signals, which are interpreted as different sounds.

Hearing loss is a normal part of aging, but significant hearing loss or deafness can happen at any age as a result of many conditions. Deafness may be temporary from an acute injury or permanent due to a chronic condition. Common causes of hearing loss and deafness include:

  • Otosclerosis, abnormal bone growths in the inner ear

  • Age-related hearing loss

  • Disease

  • Infection

  • Inherited hearing loss

  • Injury from noise or medications

  • Nerve damage

  • Ruptured eardrum

Symptoms

While deafness refers to the complete loss of hearing, it tends to be the result of longer-term progressive hearing loss. Many symptoms may indicate hearing difficulty or loss of hearing. Signs and symptoms of progressive hearing loss include:

  • Asking people to repeat things — Asking people to speak up or repeat what they have said can signal hearing loss.

  • Difficulty hearing consonants — Hearing loss can make it more difficult to hear specific sounds, such as consonants, in many words.

  • Listening to TV or radio at a higher volume — Listening at volume levels that are very loud to others may indicate hearing trouble.

  • Trouble discerning different sounds — Inability to tell different noises apart, especially in very crowded or busy areas, may indicate progressive hearing loss.

Treatment Options

Hearing loss and deafness can be treated. Therefore, it’s critical to consult a physician early for diagnosis and treatment. Available options include:

  • Ear implants — There are several types of implants that can help correct hearing loss. Bone-anchored hearing aids are surgically placed in the bone behind the ear and transmit sounds through the skull. Because they bypass the ear canal, they are most effective for people who have sudden hearing loss in one ear, conductive hearing loss associated with chronic ear infections, or conductive hearing losses and cannot wear conventional hearing aids for a number of reasons (poor comfort or lack of an ear canal). Cochlear implants are most effective for people who have severe damage to the inner ear. These implants bypass the damaged ear and transmit sound directly to auditory nerves.

  • Hearing aids — A small electronic device that makes some sounds louder for a person with hearing loss. Hearing aids are typically worn one of two ways: either completely in the ear, or with parts inside of and behind the ear. Hearing aids can dramatically improve hearing ability by amplifying sounds and making them easier for the inner ear to interpret.

  • Medication — In the event of sudden hearing loss, some medications, such as steroids, may prove beneficial in restoring hearing ability.

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