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Types of hearing loss

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Around 1 in 6 people suffer from some sort of hearing loss to a greater or lesser extent. Symptoms of gradual hearing loss range from not hearing other people clearly when they speak, to having to turn up the volume on the television or radio to a level that is not comfortable to others. Hearing loss can also be caused immediately due to trauma or illness. The causes of, and treatments for, hearing loss are largely identified by recognising the type of impairment that you suffer from.

If you have been diagnosed with hearing loss by an audiologist or your doctor, you may have also been told what type of hearing loss you have, or you may have been given a general diagnosis of ‘hearing loss’. Alternatively, you may have self-diagnosed hearing loss based on your symptoms. Either way, understanding the type of hearing loss you suffer from can help you or your doctor to identify its cause and the most appropriate form of treatment.

There are three identifiable types of hearing loss, though all of them result in sound signals failing to reach your brain.

1. Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL)

This type describes damage to your inner ear which is causing you to become partially deaf. This may be a problem with your auditory nerve (which is the nerve that sends sound signals to your brain for it to interpret), or with the hair cells in your cochlea (which is your sensory hearing organ). Exactly where the problem lies is not always clear, but the result is the same: your brain is unable to correctly perceive (hear) sounds and so becomes unable to interpret (understand) them properly.

This may be the problem if you find that you are mishearing what people are saying to you, leading to misunderstandings.

There are several possible causes for this type of hearing loss, the most common of which is age. Around 1 in 7 people over the age of 65 will develop SNHL. Other causes include Ménière’s disease, infections, trauma (such as a head injury) or exposure to loud noise (either in a single, loud incident or over time).

Treatments for this type of hearing loss include:

  • Digital hearing aids
  • Cochlear implants
  • Middle ear implants
  • Bone-anchored implants

You may also be advised to develop lip-reading skills or learn British Sign Language depending on the nature and extent of your hearing loss.

2. Conductive hearing loss

This type of hearing loss is the inability of sound to pass from your outer ear to your inner ear. It is usually caused by a blockage of some sort, such as earwax, an ear infection, perforated eardrum or glue ear. Conductive hearing loss may also be caused by damage to the ear bones through injury, or otosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the middle ear).

This type of hearing loss may be only temporary. Glue ear is common in childhood, for instance, when our Eustachian tubes (which lead from our ears to the back of our throat) are underdeveloped, and it can clear once the tubes are fully functional. Earwax is simple enough to remove. However, if your conductive hearing loss is not temporary or more invasive treatment is deemed necessary, you may be offered a conventional hearing aid, or a bone anchored hearing aid.

3. Mixed hearing loss

This is a combination of SNHL and conductive hearing loss. This may be something that you were born with, or it can be acquired through old age, illness or injury.

To discover the type of hearing loss you are suffering from, a simple hearing test can be carried out. Afterwards, we can discuss the options that are available to you according to your diagnosis, to see what would give you the best results for your own unique circumstances. Whatever the type of hearing loss you are suffering, there are devices and means of improving your hearing and/or quality of life and we can support you to make an informed decision about what care you need.

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