Hearing Health: Conductive Hearing Loss
Among the four types of hearing loss, conductive hearing loss is the most easily treated. However, it's still important to understand how and why it occurs.
When exploring the topic of deafness, you might come across information for varying forms of hearing loss. All of these conditions take away or diminish someone’s hearing, but they impact people in different ways and require differing treatments. Because of that, it’s important to make distinctions between them.
Conductive hearing loss, while rarer than sensorineural hearing loss, can affect anyone. While many cases are temporary or completely curable, some result in lasting damage and permanent hearing loss.
Before we delve into the symptoms and treatment for conductive hearing loss, we need to understand what it is and how it can occur.
What is Conductive Hearing Loss?
Conductive hearing loss is a form of hearing loss that occurs when sound is unable to reach the inner ear. This can be in the form of a blockage, damage to the eardrum, and a narrowing ear canal.
This condition is usually split into two groups: inner ear and middle ear hearing loss. The outer ear consists of the opening and ear canal, while the middle ear includes a number of small bones. As sound passes through the ear, it moves through these areas to the inner ear, where the cochlea processes the vibrations into sound.
When this process is hindered or blocked, it’s called conductive hearing loss. Most cases of conductive hearing loss are caused by ear infections and earwax buildup, but many other factors can lead to this condition.
Causes of Conductive Hearing Loss
As mentioned before, conductive hearing loss can occur in two areas. Common afflictions of the outer ear include:
- Earwax buildup and impaction.
- Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa.
- Exostoses, which are small, abnormal growths within the ear canal.
- Foreign objects in the ear.
Problems with the middle ear can also lead to conductive hearing loss. These problems include:
- Ear infections, or otitis media, which leads to a buildup of fluid in the middle ear.
- A burst or perforated eardrum, which can be caused by loud noises, injuries, rapid altitude changes, and ear infections.
- A hardened/thickened eardrum, also known as Tympanosclerosis.
- Issues with the eustachian tube, or the middle ear’s passage to the throat.
- Abnormal middle-ear growths or tumors.
- Breakage of the middle-ear bones, known formally as ossicular chain discontinuity.
- Otoscelerosis, a hardening/freezing of the middle ear bones.
Conductive hearing loss can also be present at birth, usually caused by afflictions like microtia (an underdeveloped ear), and stenosis (narrow ear canal).
Swimming in cold water very frequently can also lead to Exostoses, the hard protrusions in the ear canal. This condition is also known as “surfer’s ear”, not to be confused with swimmer’s ear, which is a temporary infection.
Symptoms of Conductive Hearing Loss
The ultimate sign that you’re suffering from hearing loss is a lost or diminishing ability to hear. However, conductive hearing loss has a few symptoms that are more specific.
- Problems hearing or understanding speech
- Unclear or muffled noise
- One-sided hearing loss, or the ability to hear better out of one ear than the other.
- Pressure or pain in one or both ears.
- Issues keeping your balance.
- A feeling that your voice sounds strange, or louder than usual.
- Strange odors or fluids leaking from the ear — which is typical of conductive hearing loss caused by infection or impaction.
Conductive vs Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Unlike sensorineural hearing loss, which often leads to issues hearing certain pitches, voices, or consonants, conductive hearing loss usually leads to the muffling of sound in general.
Sensorineural hearing loss is always permanent, while conductive hearing loss can usually be cured with procedures, surgery, and antibiotics. While some cases of conductive hearing loss are incurable, many can be cleared up with proper medical care.
However, these conditions are not mutually exclusive. Sensorineural and conductive hearing loss can occur in tandem in a condition called mixed hearing loss. If you are experiencing symptoms untypical of conductive hearing loss, it is recommendded that you get a hearing test along with your physical examination.
Conductive hearing loss usually occurs after head trauma, allergies, or after contracting ear infections like swimmer’s ear. Sensorineural hearing loss, on the other hand, tends to be more insidious. Many people do not realize they have sensorineural hearing loss until the issue becomes severe.
For that reason, it’s important to get your hearing checked often. If you are seeking treatment for conductive hearing loss, your doctor might test you for sensorineural damage as well. This is a key part of recognizing mixed hearing loss.
While conductive and sensorineural hearing loss are different, they can both impact your hearing and quality of life.
Conductive Hearing Loss Treatment
Many things can cause conductive hearing loss, so treatment varies. The first step to treatment is seeking help and finding a diagnosis. Your family doctor or audiologist can help you with this. Once the issue has been identified, treatment can move forward.
Most cases of conductive hearing loss are caused by earwax buildup and ear infections. While these issues seem benign, they can be dangerous if left alone or treated improperly.
If you are suffering from earwax blockage, do not try to remove the earwax yourself. You can easily puncture your eardrum or shove the impaction further into your ear. Avoid putting anything in your ears, including ear canals and cleaning tools.
Meanwhile, those suffering from frequent ear infections should seek treatment. While isolated treatments might be solved easily, chronic issues can lead to scarring of the ear canal. Never let an ear infection fester, and talk to your doctor. It’s important that you receive the proper antibiotics to clear up the infection. Do not rely entirely on home remedies.
For those with tumors, growths, or protrusions in the ear, surgery is an option to remove these issues. If the issue cannot be solved with a procedure, other avenues of treatment do exist.
Hearing aids for conductive hearing loss do exist. Some standard forms of hearing aids can provide relief, and specific hearing aids known as bone conduction hearing aids tackle conduction issues specifically.
These hearing aids operate by transferring sound vibrations directly to the cochlea, bypassing the outer and middle ear. For those suffering from inoperable conditions, these hearing aids can eliminate the need for the damaged/malformed parts of the ear.
Regardless of what is causing your hearing loss, it’s important that you seek help. If you’re interested in learning more about your ears and what causes hearing loss, Signia provides information on-demand in the form of blogs and articles. Stay up-to-date with new content by subscribing to the Signia newsletter. Being in-the-know can help you identify issues in yourself and your loved ones