Understanding and Safeguarding Your Hearing

Perhaps just as remarkable as its role in our sense of hearing, the ear is also important to the complex process of maintaining the body’s balance and its sense of orientation. Divided into outer, middle and inner regions, all three sections of this intricate sensory organ are involved in the detection, processing and onward transmission of sound waves for interpretation by the brain, while only the innermost chamber is also involved in the balancing function.

The outer region of the organ acts as a funnel that channels sound waves along a narrow canal at the end of which is the eardrum or tympanic membrane. The drum vibrates in response and, in doing so, transmits that vibration through a succession of three tiny bones in the middle chamber that are known individually as the malleus (hammer), incus (anvil) and stapes (stirrup) and collectively as the ossicles.

The innermost chamber is sealed by the oval window of the cochlea against which the stapes then vibrates. So-called because of its resemblance to a snail, the cochlea is filled with fluid and contains a further structure known as the organ of Corti that is lined with delicate, hair-like nerve cells known as dendrites. It is these cells that, when agitated by the resulting pressure wave in the cochlear fluid, act to transform this physical effect into a series of neural impulses that are then relayed by the auditory nerve to the relevant, interpretative centres in the brain.

Hearing provides us with vital information about our environment such as the sound of approaching traffic or some alternative danger. It is the receiving half of the human two-way communication system upon which we must often depend in order to secure a living. In addition, it is the means by which we enjoy music, bird song and the companionship of others. All of which are sound reasons for ensuring that we safeguard this invaluable gift.

There are a variety of factors with the potential to impair or even destroy this ability. Among the most common of these is acute infection. Its symptoms often include partial deafness, pain and dizziness and, where the external ear is involved, there may be a discharge. Diagnosis is simple and antibiotic therapy normally effective with no residual deafness. Chronic, repeated infections, however pose more of a threat and some surgical intervention could prove necessary to avoid permanent auditory impairment.

More insidious however, is the long-term exposure to loud noise, the most common cause of deafness in young people today and still increasing. At the first sign of any auditory loss, consulting a doctor is essential and examination at one of The Ear Institute audiology centres could save your hearing.

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