As your eyes are the passage into this world, your ears are your passage to the sounds which help us navigate daily life.
Your ears are made up of three different parts:
- Outer Ear: this is the outer part which is visible on the side of your head, and collects and tunnels in soundwaves
- Middle Ear: the middle part of your ear is separated by the ear drum; it consists of tiny bones which help amplify sound waves
- Inner Ear: this is where the sound waves collected by the auditory nerve are changed into electrical impulses and sent to the brain for processing. Our brains then translate these electrical signals into hearable sounds. The clacking on your keyboard, the sound of the cars driving and birds chirping are all translated as vibrations.
Your ears are important to your body’s sense of balance. They are home to the vestibular system which is a sensory system [source ASHA] that provides your brain with information on balance of your body.
The vestibular system contains fluid inside the canals which move when you move your head and body. The fluid inside the canals essentially tells the brain in what direction your head and body are moving, by signalling through your acoustic nerve. The brain takes this information along with information from your eyes and senses from your muscles to help you keep your balance and pinpoint the position of your body.
Common Conditions which affect the Ears
Hearing Loss/ Deafness
Hearing loss is a common condition which affects a person’s ability to hear either totally, or partially in one or both the ears.
A common cause for deafness or hearing loss s prolonged exposure to loud noise, which can damage your hearing. How loud is too loud? It is relatively agreed that noise levels higher than 85db have the most damage.
Hearing loss can also occur with age, but hardly leads to long term deafness. Other reasons include:
- Build-up of ear wax
- Ear infection such as otitis media or otitis externa. Infections can occur for a variety of reasons; from swimming to respiratory infections such as cold or flu.
- Head injury which can cause displacement of the ear bones or drum
To prevent hearing loss, don’t poke anything into your ears – like cotton buds – these may injure the inner ear.
If you work in an area with loud noise, wear protective ear coverings to help block out the noise from negatively impacting your ears. And try not to listen to loud music in your headphones.
Tinnitus is an annoying sound which sounds like a ringing or buzzing in your ear, which is not coming from the outside world. It can be constant or come and go over time.
There is unfortunately no real recognised remedy to help counteract tinnitus as it can often not be narrowed down to a cause. The NHS recommends:
- Tinnitus counselling which helps you learn more about the tinnitus and finds a way to cope with it. This is particularly important as many people can suffer anxiety or depression if tinnitus is on-going.
- Masking the sound by replaying other more acceptable sounds such as white noise or music, which helps retrain your brain tune out the tinnitus
Vertigo is a symptom characterised by the feeling of you, or your environment, is moving or spinning around. It can affect your balance, develop suddenly and last merely a few seconds but enough to throw you off once or more a day [NHSInform].
Vertigo can be caused by Labyrinthitis (also referred to as vestibular neuritis) which is an inner ear infection which usually gets better by itself in a few weeks [Source NHS]. This condition is an inflammation of the fluids in your inner ear, which affects the ability for your nerves to send messages to the brain.
The root cause for this is usually a viral infection such as a cold or flu.
Ear infections are usually characterised by hearing changes and pain. They can cause tenderness, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and even headaches; with worse infections causing discharge leaking from the ear.
Blocked or clogged ears can cause the feeling of hearing loss and deafness. There are several reasons which cause your ears from getting blocked.
A build-up of ear wax is the most common cause. Other reasons include higher altitude (the feeling of blockage which occurs when you’re in an airplane) which causes temporary ear locking.