May Is Better Hearing Month: Time to Look at Your Ears

It only rolls around once a year but May is Better Hearing Month – a time for you to stop for a moment to consider the wonders of hearing and what life would be like if you experienced hearing loss. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun.

So, let’s take a quick look at ears and hearing and steps you can take to protect this precision gift from nature.

sounds of life
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How Do We Hear

When you hear a sound, it travels through the air, is captured by the outer ear, and channeled down the ear canal where then vibrates your ear drum. The vibration of the ear drum begins to vibrate three small bones in the middle ear space which vibrate a snail-shaped organ called the cochlea.

Inside the cochlea, millions of hair-like projections float in a sea of cochlear fluid and convert those sound vibrations into electrical signals that are next sent on to the hearing centers of the brain.

Here, those electrical signals are interpreted. The sound you hear is localized (you can tell from which direction it came), processed and, using the memories stored in your brain’s memory banks, you can identify the sound as a dog bark, a Harley taking off or speech.

Doesn’t sound so complicated, right? Except when you consider that all of this happens in less than a second. Sound can be processed instantaneously, enabling us to communicate with the world around us. In a flash.

Now, when all of those little ear bits are working properly and the brain’s hearing centers are firing on all cylinders, you can hear the rustle of a summer breeze or the refrigerator kicking on in the middle of the night. But if anywhere along that route, sound waves encounter a problem, you don’t hear or you don’t hear as well.

So, when working properly, hearing is a blessing that we often take for granted. However, when the ears start to go, or if an individual experiences sudden hearing loss, we’re looking at a life changing event.

One last question. Are you willing to lose hearing simply to avoid having a hearing evaluation? You don’t have to be part of the over-50 crowd. In fact, infants are tested immediately for any signs of hearing loss so the problem exists across the age spectrum. And if your kid is plugged in to an MP3 player 25 hours a day, ummm, you might want to talk about hearing health. EVEN IF YOU HAVE TO SHOUT!

Causes of Hearing Loss

Lots of things.

Age is a factor in most cases but not all. The hearing mechanism – the parts you don’t see – are delicate and as time goes by, some of those parts just don’t work as well as they once did. This is called presbycusis – permanent nerve hearing loss as a result of aging and normal wear-and-tear on the hearing system.

Head injury is another cause of hearing loss. A whack on the head at work without your hard hat can cause hearing loss for life. In fact, any kind of head wound can lead to hearing loss, deafness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or balance problems.

Sudden loud noise can cause hearing loss. Hearing loss is the number one medical issue for troops returning from serving duty – they’ve experienced permanent hearing loss caused by nearby explosions, IEDs, machine guns and other loud, concussive noises.

It can happen in a war zone and it can happen in the back yard while using a chain saw or mowing the lawn. Protect your hearing by protecting your ears whenever there’s a possibility of being exposed to loud sounds.

There are many medical causes of hearing loss such as certain diseases, cardiovascular issues and high-dose ototoxic medication; however, even common household medicines, like aspirin, may damage hearing and should be taken in low dosages and only as needed.

Finally, in today’s multi-decibel world, long-time exposure to loud noise over a lifetime is a major cause of hearing loss – even among people in their 20s and 30s. We grow up in a noisy world. Whether working in a loud, busy office or on the factory floor, noise is all around us. The lawn mower, traffic on the highway, the subway, the jets overhead. Finding a place that’s totally quiet is almost impossible, no matter where you live.

So, there is no one cause of hearing loss and each patient is unique. That’s why a hearing evaluation is so critical to an improved listening experience. It’s important for the hearing care professional to identify the range and extent of hearing loss so the proper hearing aids can be fitted and the individual can enjoy the birds twittering in the trees again. Nice.

Hearing Protection: Protecting What You Have

There’s no magic pill to cure hearing loss or even prevent it (yet – researchers may be close). The fact is, given the current state of medicine and technology; once hearing is gone it is g-o-n-e. GONE!

So the best solution to solving a hearing problem is to take care of what you’ve got. And to help you in that endeavor, here are some tips that’ll keep your hearing healthy for years to come.

Go Unplugged. The hearing mechanism can actually heal itself when slightly damaged if given time. So, for example, when you leave a rock concert your ears are ringing but a day or two later, your hearing is back to normal. Give your ears a break and prevent further exposure. Give your ears a chance to heal themselves. Damage may have be done but by giving them a break, they have a better chance to recover.

Wear ear protection. Even if you’re a weekend warrior out mowing the lawn, invest in some quality ear cups to protect your hearing.

On the job, when things get a little too loud, put in some ear plugs. And, try out those noise cancellation headsets. They’re a little pricey but if you’re exposed to a lot of noise each day, consider it another investment in the future of your hearing health.

See a hearing professional. Have a hearing evaluation performed to determine just how much hearing loss you have, if any. This initial hearing test will serve as a baseline reading for tests in the future so, even if you’re 25-years-old, see a hearing professional.

And all persons can practice good ear safety and hygiene by not using cotton swabs to clean the ears. Even though we’ve been taught to do this as part of our hygiene routine, it’s dangerous and actually does more harm than good. A cotton swab pushes dirt and debris that collects in the out ear canal deeper into the ear. If you have ear wax problems, use a wax softener.

If you still feel you are having issues, visit your physician or hearing care professional for evaluation and safe ear wax removal. It is easy (and painful) to puncture an ear drum which is another reason cotton swabs are not recommended.

Now...Where to Start?

You just might discover that now IS the time to get those ears checked. So call your hearing care professional today or simply visit the Find a Professional section on Healthy Hearing to find one near you.

May is Better Hearing Month. May your hearing remain healthy for years to come.

It will if you take care of it today.

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