Sensorineural Hearing Loss is hearing loss that is a result of damage to the inner ear. Involving the delicate mechanisms and neural connections, the inner ear is composed of various delicate components, most of which do not have the capacity to repair or regenerate themselves if damaged. Injury to the inner ear often results in some degree of permanent hearing damage. Often sensorineural hearing loss is gradual, as lasting damage to the inner ear accrues and compounds over time. The inability of the inner ear to rebound from injury is part of what makes sensorineural hearing loss the most common type of hearing loss, accounting for 9 out of 10 reported hearing loss cases.
Sensorineural hearing loss is a term that is a compound of “Sensory” and “Neural” two sub-types of hearing loss, both occurring in the inner ear. Sensory hearing loss means that the hearing loss is caused by an impairment or malformation of the hair cells that detect sound waves. Hair cells are tiny sensory cells, each attuned to detecting a specific frequency of sound waves. The triggering of hair cells by sound waves causes the hair cells to translate the soundwaves to the auditory nerve which processes the information and draws meaning from it in the auditory cortex of the brain.
Our hair cells are finite – they cannot repair, replace or regenerate themselves if they sustain damage. The hair cells are also susceptible to harm from a variety of causes including a lack of proper circulation, damage from infection or prolonged exposure to loud noise.
The other part of “sensorineural” is the neural aspect of the inner ear. When a person has neural hearing loss, the problem in hearing is rooted in the auditory nerve and how it transfers information from the hair cells. Neural hearing loss can occur at the point of transfer –from hair cells to the nerve structure, or along its path to the brain.
When sensorineural hearing loss is present, the listener will usually be able to detect the presence of sound, but it will sound muffled or unclear. Many people report that their ears feel plugged up. Finding the source of a sound and comprehending speech will also become more difficult. The inner ear damage inherent to sensorineural hearing loss is almost like putting together a puzzle with missing pieces. A person can often catch some spoken words, but the full picture of sound eludes them.
With sensorineural hearing loss there are often problem areas that concentrate around certain frequencies. When you come in for a hearing exam, the resulting audiogram can show your hearing specialist where concentrated problem areas lie. A common manifestation of this is the inability to hear very high frequency sounds, like children’s voices. If you have sensorineural hearing loss, hearing aids can be programmed specifically to compensate for the areas where your hearing is most impaired.
Sensorineural hearing loss often arises with other problems of hearing and balance. Nearly half of the people with sensorineural hearing loss also report having a ringing in their ears, known as tinnitus. Issues with dizziness and vertigo are also quite common.
Depending on the severity of the hearing loss, measured by decibel range, sensorineural hearing loss is classified into several degrees. The most common are mild, moderate and severe. Less common are profound and total hearing loss which represent states of deafness.
As gradual sensorineural hearing loss progresses, it intrinsically changes the way the brain processes sound. The brain compensates for missing audio information by devoting other cognitive resources towards hearing comprehension, as well as repurposing unused hearing pathways. With the brain restructuring itself around damaged hearing it means our hearing moves farther and farther away from its original state. This is why it is better to treat hearing loss early if possible, when minimal changes have occurred on the neural level and hearing solutions like hearing aids and assistive devices are much easier for our hearing to adapt to.
Although most sensorineural hearing loss is permanent and irreversible, it can be effectively managed with hearing aids. The treatment of sensorineural hearing loss with hearing aids can rehabilitate hearing and help people stay connected to their friends and family. Contemporary hearing aids come in discreet designs with a plethora of options to help people find the perfect solution for their hearing loss and lifestyle.
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