by Gil Kaminski
Reviewed by Michal Luntz, M.D. on August 1st, 2023
Hearing loss is a common condition that affects people of all ages and has many different causes. To understand your specific situation and the actions you should consider taking, it's beneficial to first understand the different types of hearing loss.
There are three primary types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural, and mixed. To grasp the differences, it's helpful to understand the basic anatomy of the ear. The ear is divided into three main sections: the outer ear, which captures sound; the middle ear, responsible for amplifying sound; and the inner ear, which processes sound by converting it into electrical signals that the brain interprets. For a more in-depth exploration, refer to the article ’Understanding the three parts of your ear and how audiologists assess them’.
Consider the ear as both a pathway for sound and a sound converter. When this pathway is blocked or has obstacles, sound can't travel through it properly, leading to conductive hearing loss. On the other hand, when sound can't be converted into electrical signals due to damage or malfunctioning of the inner ear or auditory nerve, it results in sensorineural hearing loss.
Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound is not conducted or not amplified efficiently through the outer ear canal to the eardrum or by the tiny bones, known as ossicles, in the middle ear. Several factors, such as ear infections, an excess of earwax, fluid in the middle ear space, an abnormality of the tiny bones, or damage to the eardrum, can cause this type of hearing loss. Often, this type of hearing loss can be improved or eliminated through medical treatment or surgery, depending on the cause. For instance, if earwax is the cause, removing it can help. If the issue is an infection, your physician may prescribe medication.
Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or the auditory nerve. Many things can cause sensorineural hearing loss, such as aging, exposure to loud noise, certain illnesses, genetics, and some types of medications. This type of hearing loss is usually not treatable through medical or surgical means, one exception being sudden hearing loss. However, hearing aids and other devices are often beneficial.
Mixed Hearing Loss occurs when a person has both types of hearing loss at the same time. For example, if you were born with sensorineural hearing loss and later in life developed an ear infection causing conductive hearing loss, you would have mixed hearing loss.
Hearing loss is very common. Understanding the type of hearing loss you have and the different options available for your specific situation is a crucial part of being in the driver's seat of your hearing health.