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Sensorineural and Conductive hearing loss

There are several types of hearing loss that people who are deaf and hard of hearing contend with – and many people are unaware of even the main differences between them. The type of hearing loss somebody has might affect how the degradation of their hearing manifests over time, alongside the treatments that can help with it. It’s entirely possible that at least one type of hearing loss might impact you in your lifetime, either personally or through a family member. With this in mind, understanding more about hearing loss could prepare you for the future, so we’ve put together this comprehensive guide.

The two main types of hearing loss

Over 40% of UK citizens over 50 have some form of hearing loss – and this number increases to over 70% when looking at citizens over 70. Across every age range, this extends to about 1 in 6 people overall, so it’s likely that you know somebody who currently has, or will develop, problems with their hearing. The prevalence of unsafe listening practices, such as enjoying music at high volumes or attending loud social events, means that younger generations face a higher risk of hearing loss as they age. The two main types of hearing loss are sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.

What is sensorineural hearing loss?

Sensorineural hearing loss is the most prevalent type of hearing loss, and is a result of damages to the auditory nerve, the inner ear, or even the brain itself. Your inner ear contains hair cells (cilia) which carry sounds to your brain, and these are particularly sensitive to damage. This typically happens due to the natural ageing process or because of exposure to loud noises, though other contributing factors exist. There is also sudden sensorineural hearing loss, also known as sudden deafness, where a person’s hearing in one ear (rarely both) disappears over a few days, or even overnight.

There are specific signs of sensorineural hearing loss which you should be aware of, and identifying these signs early could help you get better short-term and long-term treatment. Others in your age group might also have these issues, in which case ageing may be the reason. Common symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss include:

• Significant trouble with following group conversations which you would otherwise be able to easily hear.
• Other general difficulties understanding speech in a loud environment – such as at a restaurant, or a bar.
• Trouble perceiving what somebody is saying over the phone, even in a setting without background noise.
• The people you speak to sound like they’re underwater or mumbling, though you can tell that they aren’t.
• Others, particularly in your age group, are able to hear high-pitched sounds, which don’t affect you at all.
• Incessant buzzing in the ears, also known as tinnitus, which might be constant or appear at random times.

What is conductive hearing loss?

Conductive hearing loss is a less common form of hearing loss, and is often easier to treat, as the core symptom involves a physical blockage in the ear which prevents a healthy transmission of sound. The most frequent type of blockage is earwax – which our bodies constantly produce but, in extreme cases, can collect in the ear canal, stopping sounds from reaching the inner ear. Another probable cause is swimmer’s ear, a painful infection that arises when bacteria-infested water enters somebody’s ear whilst swimming. Foreign bodies, bony lesions, and even birth defects are other potential culprits for conductive hearing loss.

As with sensorineural hearing loss, there are various symptoms that might prompt you to seek a diagnosis; and as conductive hearing loss has more possible causes, these signs typically have more variety. Understanding them helps you notice the possibility that you may have conductive hearing loss – these symptoms include:

• A gradual loss of hearing, which stops you from being able to easily follow group or individual conversations.
• A stuffy sensation within the ear, similar to when water is trapped there after a shower, that won’t go away.
• Pain in the ear that seems to emerge from nowhere; this may appear and disappear, or can even be chronic.
• Unexplained fluid draining from your ears, which might be a sign of infection, or another potential blockage.
• Sudden dizziness, which can be because of the blocked ear’s inability to equally regulate the body’s balance.
• An unpleasant smell coming from the ear, which could be due to the blockage – and may point to infection.

What is mixed hearing loss?

In some cases, it’s possible for someone to develop mixed hearing loss; this is a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. With mixed hearing loss, damage or blockage prevents a sound from fully reaching the inner ear; which also struggles to accurately process and even perceive the resultant noise. The conductive component of this is usually temporary, but the sensorineural component is often permanent – addressing the former still leads to an overall improvement in your hearing, however. This could manifest as a combination of causes, such as a build-up of earwax that occurs alongside noise damage to your ear.

Hearing loss treatments

Whatever form of hearing loss you have, there are various treatment options you can look into that extend the longevity and quality of your hearing, or even restore it outright. The success of these depend on the causes of your hearing loss; for example, sensorineural treatments typically have a greater chance of working if the damage is relatively low. Similarly, the wider range of potential causes for conductive hearing loss means that not every solution works, though it’s often more treatable. Treatment for mixed hearing loss incorporates several of these approaches, one for each component that is suffering damage.

Treatments for sensorineural hearing loss

As sensorineural hearing loss involves internal damage of some kind, this might be significantly harder to treat, but there are still frequent innovations in hearing aid and assistance technologies. These hearing aids form the bulk of sensorineural treatments, which don’t aim to cure this hearing loss or deafness – and instead intend to alleviate or mitigate the symptoms. Hearing aids are small devices which go behind or inside your ear, and use a small microphone to pick up noises, which an internal computer chip then amplifies. This effectively boosts a person’s range of hearing, letting them hear sounds with greater clarity.

Cochlear implants are a more advanced approach to sensorineural hearing problems – but work along a similar principle. One half of the implant goes behind the ear, just like a regular hearing aid, and the other component is a surgical implant which attaches to the cochlea, a hollow bone within the ear. This does more than increase the volume of sounds around you; it stimulates the auditory nerve, using electrical signals to help it detect any ambient noise. For sudden sensorineural hearing loss, doctors typically recommend corticosteroids, which can involve an injection directly into the ear that reduces any internal swelling.

Treatments for conductive hearing loss

Conductive hearing loss usually involves a physical blockage, and removing this could be all that’s necessary to restore your normal range of hearing. For example, a medical professional may use a range of tools to remove earwax, such as an electric pump which irrigates the ear and simply washes the build-up away. They could also use microsuction, where a small tube goes into the ear and sucks the wax out – though people with perforated eardrums or frequent infections cannot use this treatment. Not every GP has the facilities and tools to remove earwax, and might instead recommend taking ear drops.

These drops are available at the pharmacy and again go into your ear – softening or even dissolving the earwax over time. Inner ear infections typically go away themselves over time, though a severe infection might require antibiotics; outer ear infections could also involve antibiotic or antifungal ear drops. If there’s a foreign body of any kind in the ear, which professionals can’t easily dislodge, surgery might be necessary to remove it and help you hear again. Damaged middle ear bones can also cause conductive hearing loss, and surgery could similarly repair your hearing ability.

Preventative treatments

In either case, there are ways you can prevent loss from manifesting to a degree, such as by taking care of your ears and avoiding loud music. You could do free hearing tests online regularly to assess your range of hearing – giving you a clear perspective of your ear health in comparison to others your age. Wear hearing protection on a busy work site or when using noisy equipment, and make sure the social events you attend aren’t too loud. It always helps to be diligent about these matters, especially when sensorineural hearing loss is much less simple to treat than its conductive equivalent.

When you’re worried about your hearing, it helps to have a service by your side which can identify any existing problems, and guide you through treatment and preventative options. VIP Hearing offers hearing testsearwax removaltinnitus managementhearing aids, and other forms of assistance for anybody suffering from hearing loss. For more on our services, and to book a free consultation, get in touch today.