The ear is a surprisingly complex organ responsible for collecting and processing sounds and transmitting them to the brain for interpretation as well as aiding in balance. Many take hearing and balance for granted, but understanding the process is the key to treating hearing loss. The ear consists of three sections: the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Each plays an important role in hearing. Being a part of the auditory system and the vestibular system, the ear is involved in many health conditions. Treatment for any ear related condition will depend on the cause.
Hearing loss is any degree of impairment in the ability to comprehend sound. For hearing to occur, sound waves pass through the external, middle and inner ear, where they are translated into nerve impulses and sent to the brain, which then interprets those signals as sound. Any interruption to this process can cause a partial or total loss of hearing.
An ear infection occurs when fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear following a viral or bacterial infection. This painful affliction is most common in children, but can affect people of all ages. Ear infections can be either acute (of short duration) or chronic (persisting or reoccurring frequently).
Meniere’s disease is an inner ear disorder that causes fluctuating hearing loss, tinnitus, vertigo and fullness or pressure in the ear. It is the result of excess fluid in the inner ear. There is no cure for Meniere’s disease, but various strategies can help patients manage their symptoms.
When water becomes trapped in the ear, bacteria can cause inflammation and infection of the ear canal. This painful affliction is known as swimmer’s ear and can occur following exposure to any moist environment. It is most common in children and teenagers, individuals with eczema and anybody with excess earwax.
Tinnitus refers to the perception of sound in one or both ears despite the absence of any actual external sound. It is usually described as a ringing in the ear, but some people report a hissing, roaring, whooshing, buzzing or whistling noise instead. It is either intermittent or constant, and ranges in severity from a barely perceptible nuisance to a full-fledged distraction.
An eardrum perforation is defined as a hole or rupture in the eardrum. Known medically as a tympanic membrane rupture, this tear occurs in the membrane separating the outer ear from the inner ear. A perforation can lead to a middle ear infection and possible hearing loss, though in many cases it will heal on its own without medical treatment.
An acoustic neuroma is a benign tumor of the cranial nerve that connects the inner ear and the brain. Though noncancerous and typically slow growing, it can affect both hearing and balance, and may cause hearing loss, tinnitus and dizziness. In rare cases, tumors may become large enough to press against the brain, interfering with vital processes and even leading to death.
The medical term for infection of the mastoid cells is mastoiditis. The condition affects children more often than adults since they are most prone to middle ear infections, but it can strike adults on occasion. Bacteria migrate from the middle ear to the air cells of the mastoid bone, which are essential for proper drainage of fluid. Cholesteatoma, a type of skin cyst, can also prevent the ear from draining properly, leading to mastoiditis.
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, commonly referred to as BPPV, is a vestibular disorder that causes vertigo. It occurs when calcium deposits in the inner ear become dislodged from the otolithic membrane and settle in the semicircular canals. Any change in the position of the head causes these tiny crystals to shift, triggering dizziness.