How the ear works

How the ear works

Ears are extraordinary. They are in charge of collecting sounds, translating them into electrical signals and sending these signals to your brain. And what’s more, your ears also help you keep your balance.

How ears work

The outer ear 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 stirrup 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.

The ear is made up of three sections:

1. Outer ear

2. Middle ear

3. Inner ear

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.

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.