The ear is one if the body’s most advanced and sensitive organs. When it is damaged or has been affected by something, it warns us that there is something wrong with our auditory system.
What is the ear?
The ear, also known as the vestibulocochlear organ, is the sensory system comprised of the organs that maintain balance and hearing needed to perceive noises around us. It is divided into three parts:
- The external ear: formed by the pinna and the external auditory canal, which receives sounds and directs them to the middle ear.
- The middle ear: formed by the tympanic cavity and membrane, the auditory ossicles, the mastoid antrum and air cells and the Eustachian tube.
- The inner ear: located inside the temporal bone, it is divided into the bony labyrinth and the membranous labyrinth. Its main function is to transport the electric impulses received to the brain in the form of sound.
However, if this information is not sent to the brain in optimal conditions, we may begin to present discomfort or the symptoms of a disorder in our ears.
Below is an explanation of the main ear diseases that can impact normal hearing ability.
The most common ear disorders
- Otitis media: an inflammation of the inner ear caused by a bacteria or virus that causes fluid to accumulate behind the eardrum. It is not serious if treated correctly and does not return repeatedly.
- Otosclerosis: the abnormal growth of the small bones in the middle ear. It is one of the most common causes of gradual hearing loss in adults, but hearing can be recovered with surgery.
- Tinnitus: a sensation of noise in the head, such as a constant ringing or buzzing. There is currently no scientific treatment or cure for this condition.
- Ménière’s disease: a chronic condition that affects the balance and hearing parts of the inner ear. Symptoms include vertigo, hearing loss, tinnitus and a feeling of pressure or “fullness” in the ear. Medication can be prescribed to help alleviate the symptoms. Another option is the Meniett device which is placed in the outer ear and generates micropressure impulses to balance the pressure of the fluid in the inner ear.
- Presbycusis: this is age-related hearing loss, the gradual loss of hearing in adults as they grow older. It is usually bilateral and symmetrical, meaning it occurs at the same rate simultaneously in both ears.
- Barotrauma: this is the term for physical damage to the ear caused by changes in barometric (air) or water pressure.
- Acoustic trauma: this is damage caused to the ear by a sudden, loud noise such as explosions, loud machinery or music concerts. The impact and effects of the damage need to be assessed and monitored over the medium and long term.
- Hearing loss, impairment or anacusis (deafness): the difficulty to hear due to partial, unilateral, bilateral or total hearing loss. It may be hereditary or the consequence of an illness, traumatism, long-term exposure to noise or aggressive medication for the auditory nerve. Hearing aids or cochlear implants can be used to correct hearing impairment.
Less common ear disorders
- Exostosis: this is an abnormal bone growth that appears within the ear canal. It is also known as “Surfer’s ear” as it can be caused by exposure to cold wind and water. If it grows in size, surgery may be necessary.
- Usher syndrome or Retinitis pigmentosa: a rare genetic condition that affects both the sight and hearing.
- Acoustic neuroma: a benign, slow-growing tumour on the vestibular nerve in the inner ear close to the brain. Treatment includes surgical removal or radiation.
- Vestibular neuritis: this condition stems from the inflammation of the vestibular nerve in the inner ear, causing vertigo and nausea.
- Perichondritis: an infection of the skin and tissue covering the cartilage of the external part of the ear. It can cause redness, pain and fever.
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Remember: if you have any of the symptoms listed above, see your doctor or an ENT specialist.