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Sensorineural Hearing Loss

The most common kind of hearing loss

If you have sensorineural hearing loss, you are not alone

Sensorineural hearing loss is also commonly known as age-related hearing loss, and is what will gradually occur in most of us as we grow older. Since this is a natural process of wear and tear, both ears are usually equally affected. As the loss is a gradual change that happens over years, you may not realize that you’ve lost some of your ability to hear until something or someone brings this to your attention.

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Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss, accounting for 90% of reported hearing loss. The word ‘sensorineural’ refers to the sensory abilities of the tens of thousands of tiny hair cells in the inner ear. The hair cells at the entrance of the inner ear, or cochlea, transmit high frequency sounds to the brain.

The placement of these fine hair cells close to where all the vibrations pass into the inner ear, as well as prolonged exposure to loud environments, or the accumulated wear and tear of the normal aging process all affect the inner ear’s ability to transmit high-frequency sounds to the brain.

As with most things that change gradually over the span of many years, sensorineural hearing loss is not immediately noticeable. It is difficult for the person themselves to notice the decline because it is hard to compare one’s memory of hearing to current levels of hearing. As hearing slowly declines, the person will also start compensating for the loss by watching speakers’ lips more, or by turning the ear with better hearing to the source of sound. These actions can be subtle and the person may not even realize they are doing it.

It is also easy for the person suffering from hearing loss to be in denial, and to look externally for the cause of their hearing difficulties. It is common for people who are unaware of their hearing loss to believe that the problem lies rather with the people around them not speaking clearly, or that there is something wrong with the volume of the TV or telephone.

Causes

The main cause of sensorineural hearing loss is the wearing down of hair cells transmitting sound signals to the brain. The hair cells which transmit higher frequency sounds are more brittle than ones transmitting lower frequency sound, and are therefore more easily damaged, especially when regularly exposed to loud sounds. Gradual deterioration of the high-frequency hair cells is a common occurrence as people grow older. Most people living in modern societies will suffer from some level of progressive noise-induced hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss can also be inherited. Two people with similar noise exposure over the course of their lives can have different levels of hearing loss as a result of different genetics. The nerve signaling pathways can also be damaged by head trauma, diabetes, or by certain medications like chemotherapy.

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Symptoms

With sensorineural hearing loss, high-frequency sounds are lost when they are not captured by worn-down hair cells. This means that the intensity of high-frequency sounds, like children’s voices, birds singing, music, and certain parts of speech, is reduced or experienced as distorted. Consonants that have higher frequency, like ‘f’, ‘s’, or ‘th’ can be difficult to distinguish, leading the person to misunderstand speech.

People who are not yet aware of their hearing loss commonly believe that it is others who are not speaking clearly. The difficulty of understanding speech in noisy environments is compounded with a hearing loss, and a person’s slow withdrawal from social events where many conversations are happening can be a sign of a developing hearing loss.

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Treatment

With sensorineural hearing loss, high-frequency sounds are lost when they are not captured by worn-down hair cells. This means that the intensity of high-frequency sounds, like children’s voices, birds singing, music, and certain parts of speech, is reduced or experienced as distorted. Consonants that have higher frequency, like ‘f’, ‘s’, or ‘th’ can be difficult to distinguish, leading the person to misunderstand speech.

People who are not yet aware of their hearing loss commonly believe that it is others who are not speaking clearly. The difficulty of understanding speech in noisy environments is compounded with a hearing loss, and a person’s slow withdrawal from social events where many conversations are happening can be a sign of a developing hearing loss.

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