Hearing loss can be broadly separated into two categories: conductive (problems in delivering sound to the inner ear) and sensorineural (problems of the inner ear, or cochlea, and/or the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain). Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) happens when there is damage to tiny hair cells in the cochlear and/or the auditory nerve. In children, the most common causes of SNHL include inner ear abnormalities, genetic variations, jaundice (or a yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes), and viral infection from the mother during pregnancy. In adults, SNHL is most commonly caused by aging, exposure to loud noises, head trauma, or other conditions (see below for more detail).
Symptoms of SNHL may include:
SNHL happens when there is damage to tiny hair cells in the cochlear and/or the auditory nerve. Sound energy reaches the cochlea, but damaged hair cells are unable to convert sound waves into neural signals that pass through the auditory nerve to the brain. Auditory nerve abnormalities will also cause SNHL. Other causes may include:
If you are experiencing hearing loss, you should see an ENT specialist who can make the correct diagnosis. This is important because the treatment for hearing loss depends on the cause. Once a diagnosis is made, your physician will be able to talk to you about all treatment options. A critical part of the evaluation will be a hearing test (audiogram) performed by an audiologist to determine the severity of your hearing loss, as well as whether it is conductive, sensorineural, or a combination of both.
Your ENT specialist may recommend specific treatment options based on the results of your hearing test, or other potential tests such as a CT or MRI imaging scan. Treatment options can include:
SNHL can be treated with the use of conventional hearing aids or an implantable hearing device. Again, your ENT specialist and/or audiologist can help you decide which device may work best for you depending on your hearing test results and your lifestyle.
Copyright 2021. American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. Last reviewed April 2020.
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