Hearing is one of the human body’s most extraordinary processes. A complex system of delicate and synchronous parts, it’s easy to take this vital sense for granted. To better understand why hearing loss happens, it’s important to first know how hearing works.
It begins with sound
Sound begins with a vibration in the atmosphere. When something vibrates (whether it’s wind, a bell or a voice), it moves the air particles around it. Those air particles in turn move the air particles around them, carrying the pulse of the vibration through the air as a sound wave. That’s where your ear comes in.
Turning waves into words
Sound waves are collected by the outer ear and directed along the ear canal to the eardrum. When the sound waves hit the eardrum, the impact creates vibrations, which, in turn, cause the three bones of the middle ear to move. The smallest of these bones, the stirrup, fits into the oval window between the middle and inner ear.
When the oval window vibrates, fluid in the inner ear transmits the vibrations into a delicate, snail-shaped structure called the cochlea.
In the inner ear, thousands of microscopic hair cells are bent by the wave-like action of the fluid inside the cochlea. The bending of these hairs sets off nerve impulses. Which are then passed through the auditory nerve to the hearing center of the brain. This center translates the impulses into sounds the brain can recognize, like words, music or laughter, for instance.
If any part of this delicate system breaks down, hearing loss can be the result.
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