How Hearing Works


You’re not an Audiologist, so you can’t diagnose yourself, but there are several reasons you should learn more about the ear and how hearing loss occurs.

  • Understanding the functioning parts of the ear, including the inner ear, middle ear and outer ear can help you understand why you’re experiencing hearing loss.
  • When you know some reasons for hearing loss, you can work toward prevention at a younger age.
  • To help your Audiologist properly diagnose your hearing loss issue, you should have a basic understanding of risk factors.

The ability to hear is something that many people take for granted. While it does seem like a regular part of life for many of us, there are plenty of people across the nation who have lost this regular part of life and even more who have never experienced hearing at all. How does hearing work? How does hearing loss occur? Is there anything that can improve hearing in those who experience loss?

How Do We Hear?

To know how hearing works, you need to understand the different parts of the ear and how each part of the hearing system functions.  Outer, Middle, Inner.  

The Outer Ear

The outer ear is the part of the ear that we can see. There are two parts that make up the outer ear:

  • Pinna – Also known as an auricle, the pinna is the part of the ear that has grooves and ridges and comes out from the sides of your head. The pinna boosts sounds that sit in the 2000-2000 Hz range. The consonant sounds of speech and other similar noises are boosted in the pinna.
  • Ear canal – The ear canal has a few thin layers of skin and very fine hairs that line it. There is a high amount of blood that flows to the ear canal, which is why you might hear pulsing when it is very quiet. You’ll often find a buildup of wax in the ear canal, and while too much of it could block the canal, a small amount is normal and healthy.

Now that you understand all the working parts of your ear, you can understand more about how the ear works. First, the outer ear gathers sound waves that are sent through the air. Those sound waves then travel through the ear canal to the eardrum. Next, the eardrum begins to vibrate, which sets the ossicles into motion. The fluid in the cochlea then begins to move, which makes the hair cells bend. When they bend, electrical impulses are created and transmitted to the auditory nerve and the brain. Finally, your brain interprets the sound.

The Middle Ear

The middle ear sits between the inner ear and outer ear, just behind the eardrum, or tympanic membrane. This membrane is thin, although it has three layers. Other components of the middle ear include:

  • Ossicles – Right behind the tympanic membrane are three tiny bones called ossicles. These bones connect the eardrum to the middle ear, taking mechanical vibrations and transmitting them to the inner ear. As the vibrations travel, they increase in strength.
  • Eustachian tube – If you’ve ever had your ears pop while flying, your Eustachian tube is to blame. This tubular structure is the air pressure equalizing system of your middle ear. Normally, it is closed, but it will naturally open to equalize pressure in situations such as flying. It can also open when you yawn, chew, or swallow.

The Inner Ear

The skull bone surrounding your ear is called the temporal bone, and your inner ear is located deep inside it. The inner ear is considered an organ, and it has two main structures, including the cochlea and the semicircular canals. 

  • Cochlea – The cochlea is something you might recognize from looking at diagrams of the ear because it looks like a snail. Filled with fluid, the cochlea is the organ that actually does the hearing by changing sound vibrations to electrical impulses. The hair cells inside the cochlea are bent, and the fluid is disrupted. These actions send signals to the brain over the auditory nerve.
  • Semicircular Canals – The semicircular canals in your ear don’t actually play a part in the hearing process, but they do encourage balance when you move.

How Does Hearing Loss Occur?

There are several ways that hearing loss occurs. If you have never been able to hear, it could be a genetic condition or a birth defect. If you used to hear normally  and are starting to experience loss, it could be a sensorineural or conductive issue. 

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when the inner ear, auditory nerve, or cochlea become dysfunctional. It is often a natural result of aging and hair cells losing function or becoming damaged. If you were exposed to loud noises and high-frequency sounds on a regular basis, such as for something related to your profession, you could experience sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes someone has total sensorineural deafness as a result of head trauma, an inner ear infection, or a congenital deformity.

Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss can exist for various reasons.  These include:

  • Too much earwax buildup
  • Ear infections
  • Inflammation and fluid blocking the way
  • Ossicle malfunction
  • A defective or perforated eardrum

This can also occur due   to previous ear infections that can scar the eardrum and reduce it’s function. Ossicles can also become impaired due to chronic infections. 

Diseases That Contribute to Hearing Loss

There are certain diseases that can contribute to hearing loss. These are often considered hearing loss risk factors. They include meningitis, mumps, hypothyroidism, arthritis, chickenpox, diabetes, cancer, cytomegalovirus, and Lyme disease. Other risk factors include genetics, occupational noises, recreational noises, medications, age, and exposure to loud noises.

What Are Some Options for Hearing Loss Treatment?

The first step in treating hearing loss is diagnosis. When you understand more about the parts of the ear and what causes hearing loss, you’ll be better equipped to get a proper diagnosis. Working directly with our licensed Audiologists, you’ll go over everything that might be a risk factor in your situation. Through a comprehensive hearing evaluation and diagnostic testing, we can pinpoint the issue that is causing you to have reduced hearing. Some of our tests include:

  • Impedance tests
  • Otoacoustic emissions
  • Pure-tone testing
  • Speech testing
  • Tympanometry

With the results of these tests, we’ll be able to evaluate the issues you’re dealing with and eventually end up with a proper diagnosis. With a diagnosis in hand, we can determine a course of action to treat your hearing loss. If a medical referral is needed, our Audiologists will refer you to a physician for an examination.  We maintain many close relationships with the Laredo medical community.  We also have a variety of assistive listening devices (ALD) for the unique hearing loss issues our patients face. Some of the ALDS we offer are:

  • Alerting device systems – These are best for those with severe hearing loss
  • FM systems – These are assistive devices that filter out the background noise so you can hear the essential noises. These systems are widely used in the school district, but can even be utilized for normal hearing students, adults and those with varying levels of hearing loss.  
  • Sound field systems – With a sound field system, there are speakers placed around a room that helps the individual hear better
  • T-coil and loop systems – These hearing aids allow better sound perception in rooms and areas that can cultivate electromagnetic signal transmission, where available. These can include theaters, auditoriums and churches.  

Contact Us Today To Schedule an Appointment

If you’re concerned about the rate at which you’re experiencing hearing loss, you should have an evaluation right away. Contact us at Oliveira Audiology and Hearing Center in Laredo, TX, at 956-727-3801, and let’s get your appointment scheduled today.

Featured Image: Peakstock/Shutterstock

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