How the ear works

The world has never been noisier than it is today and this can affect the quality of your hearing. But ears are extraordinary. They pick up all sounds in the form of pressure waves, translate these into electrical signals and send them to the brain.

How ears work

The ear is made up of three sections:
How ears work

The outer is the fleshy hearing organ outside the skull. Its intricate shape collects sound waves and funnels them into the ear canal and onto the eardrum, which separates the outer and inner ear. This membrane is taut, like a drum skin, and vibrates in response to the sound waves.

These vibrations pass on to three tiny bones in the middle ear known as the hammer, anvil and stirrup. The latter vibrates against a membrane, which sends pressure waves through the cochlea in the inner ear. Inside the cochlea – which is the size of a pea – thousands of hair-like cells, linked to nerve fibres, change the sound waves into electrical signals, which are passed on to the brain.

Different types of hearing loss
The type of hearing loss that you suffer from mostly depends on which part of the hearing system is affected.

Conductive hearing loss is caused by factors that affect how well sound is conducted through the outer or middle ear. It reduces sound levels but does not distort them and people may sound as if they are mumbling.

Sensory-neural hearing loss occurs in the inner ear and generally affects how well we can hear higher frequencies, making it harder to hear consonant sounds like ‘t’ and ‘p’. Sound intensity is also reduced and sounds can become distorted. The most common cause is natural wear and tear on the sensitive cochlea and it usually affects older people.

Recognising hearing loss
Hearing loss is often very gradual. Your friends or family may notice signs of it before you do. They might tell you the TV is too loud or that you are shouting. You might find it more difficult to follow a conversation in a noisy room.

The cause of hearing loss is often simply too much noise over too long a time. Noise at home, at work, traffic, trains and planes can all impact how well you hear. For this reason hearing loss is increasingly affecting younger people.

Some hearing loss is a normal part of ageing. It is usually gradual and can affect one ear more than the other. The good news is that hearing tests are free and there is a wide choice of discreet and programmable hearing aids – your hearing can usually be greatly improved and no one need know you are wearing one.