What You Need to Know about Conductive Hearing Loss
Of all the different types of hearing loss, conductive hearing loss is the second most common. The good news is that it is generally a temporary condition which can be treated rather successfully. The specific treatment for a patient depends on what's causing the problem, but it can be anything from ear wax removal to medications to minor surgery.
Before we get into the different things that cause conductive hearing loss, let's define the term itself. The word "conductive" refers to the system by which sound waves travel from the air to the inner ear. They first pass through the outer ear, then move to the middle ear, then finally end in the inner ear where the cochlea is. That process of moving through the ear canal is called "transmission" or "conduction." When something interrupts the movement of sound waves, to the extent that they do not fully reach the inner ear, a diagnosis of conductive hearing loss is appropriate.
To help you understand, consider wearing simple earplugs when going to a rock concert or working in an industrial environment. The foam earplugs absorb most of the sound waves so that little or no energy actually reaches the inner ear. This is conductive hearing loss you have purposely imposed upon yourself in order to protect your hearing. Earwax and other impairments can create the same type of condition.
Symptoms of Conductive Hearing Loss
People suffering from conductive hearing loss typically complain that their ears feel plugged up. They will have trouble hearing people speak, yet their own voice will seem exceptionally loud - to the extent that they tend to talk very quietly. They also find the noise produced by eating crunchy foods to be extremely loud as well. If patients have flown on an aircraft in the past, they may liken it to the sensation one normally experiences during takeoff and landing.
Some individuals produce an excess amount of earwax as a result of stress, fear, or continued anxiety. Other times, excessive ear wax is triggered by the autoimmune system as it tries to fight a bacterial or fungal infection in the ear. Still other cases of excessive ear wax are simply the result of overactive sebaceous and sweat glands.
Excessive ear wax can interfere with the transmission of sound waves and cause conductive hearing loss. As an interesting side note, doctors estimate that in as many as 80% of all cases of perceived hearing aid failure, the real culprit is excessive ear wax buildup. Removal of earwax restores the function of the hearing aids in these cases.
Under normal conditions doctors recommend excessive earwax be left alone other than normal cleaning of the ears. However, if it interrupts hearing it can be removed through the use of liquid earwax softeners. In most cases the softeners will cause the earwax to thin and naturally drain on its own. In other cases a doctor might have to use a syringe to remove the loosened wax. Once the excessive earwax has been removed the patient's hearing should be restored.
Inner Ear Infection
Ear infections are perhaps one of the most common causes of conductive hearing loss in children. Because a child's ears are not fully developed they often do not drain well, thus providing a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria. Children with frequent ear infections in the first few years of life often have perceived developmental disabilities because they do not speak or respond to sound as is normally expected. If a doctor can diagnose conductive hearing loss early enough then these things can be overcome very easily. Once the child's hearing is restored, his developmental progress should quickly catch up.
Inner ear infections are treated most of the time with antibiotics and eardrops. The antibiotics are prescribed just in case the source of the infections is bacterial in nature. If they are viral, antibiotics don't do any good other than prevent possible bacterial infection. As for the ear drops, they are typically used to reduce water content in the ear canal, provide lubrication, reduce pain and inflammation, and prevent further viral or bacterial growth.
A perforated eardrum is another cause of conductive hearing loss. To help you understand, think of the eardrum as a thin layer of film that divides the middle ear from the inner ear; much like a piece of cellophane film that would be placed over a salad bowl. If the eardrum has a hole or tear in it, that's considered a perforated eardrum. Since the eardrum is the final conduction point of sound waves into the inner ear, any perforation will result in loss of conduction and subsequent hearing loss.
Perforated eardrums can be the result of:
- a direct injury to the ear
- a skull fracture
- a foreign object being pushed too far into the ear
- sudden loud noises such as explosions or extremely loud music
A perforated eardrum may cause pain initially, along with some measure of discharge, but both conditions are temporary. Usually a perforated eardrum will heal by itself within a couple of weeks; normal hearing should be restored after that. In an especially severe case, or where a perforated eardrum is not healing on its own, surgery may be required. In most cases this will be an outpatient procedure that can be done directly in the doctor’s office or a hearing clinic.
Although there may be other causes of conductive hearing loss, the three we've listed here are the most common. Fortunately conductive hearing loss is easily treated once a physician figures out what's causing the problem. You can take comfort in knowing that treatment for conductive hearing loss has an extremely high success rate among its most common causes. However, it's important that you seek medical attention for persistent conductive hearing loss. A persistent condition may be the result of a serious infection which can lead to further complications if it's not dealt with.