You know what hearing is, but what is hearing loss? Hearing loss, or hearing impairment (say: im-pare-ment), happens when there is a problem with one or more parts of the ear or ears ("impairment" means something is not working correctly or as well as it should).
Someone who has hearing loss might be able to hear some sounds or nothing at all. People also may use the words deaf, deafness, or hard of hearing when they're talking about hearing loss.
About 3 in 1,000 babies are born with hearing impairment, making it the most common birth defect. A hearing problem can also develop later in life.
To understand how and why hearing loss happens, it helps to know how the ear works. The ear is made up of three different sections: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. These parts work together so you can hear and process sounds. The outer ear, or pinna (the part you can see), picks up sound waves and the waves then travel through the outer ear canal.
When the sound waves hit the eardrum in the middle ear, the eardrum starts to vibrate. When the eardrum vibrates, it moves three tiny bones in your ear. These bones are called the hammer (or malleus), anvil (or incus), and stirrup (or stapes). They help sound move along on its journey into the inner ear.
The vibrations then travel to the cochlea, which is filled with liquid and lined with cells that have thousands of tiny hairs on their surfaces. There are two types of hair cells: the outer and inner cells. The sound vibrations make the tiny hairs move. The outer hair cells take the sound information, amplify it (make it louder), and tune it. The inner hair cells send the sound information to your hearing nerve, which then sends it to your brain, allowing you to hear.
There are a few different types of hearing loss: conductive, sensory, mixed (conductive and sensory combined), neural, and central.
Hearing loss can happen because a person was born with parts of the ear that didn't form correctly and don't work well. Other problems can happen later because of an injury or illness, including:
Lots of kids have had ear infections, which also can cause hearing loss. Permanent hearing loss is rare from an ear infection, but you need to visit the doctor if you or your parents suspect you have one.
If a doctor thinks that a baby or child may have hearing loss, the doctor will recommend that the parents take the kid to an audiologist. An audiologist (say: awd-ee-ah-luh-jist) is someone who is specially trained to test and help with the problems related to hearing loss.
A pediatric audiologist tests a child's hearing by doing different types of tests. They even have hearing tests for babies! Maybe you've had a hearing test, when you wore headphones and had to raise your left or right hand to show that you could hear in each ear.
If an audiologist finds that a child has hearing loss, he or she will recommend treatment and suggest the family work with a special team. This team can help figure out the best way for the kid to learn and communicate.
The kind of treatment depends on the type of hearing loss, how severe it is, and the child's other needs. Common treatments include medicine, operations, hearing aids, or other assistive listening devices, which emphasize voices and help kids hear better in noisy settings. With treatment, most kids will be able to hear normally again.
Hearing aids are kind of like tiny amplifiers. They help someone hear sounds better and can even pick up the sounds so that what kids hear is clearer. Hearing aids deliver amplified sounds (via sound vibrations) from the eardrum and middle ear to the inner ear or cochlea. Hearing aid technology is available that can adjust the volume of sounds automatically.
For some kids who can't hear or understand words even with the help of hearing aids, there is a device called a cochlear implant (say: ko-klee-ur im-plant). This is a very tiny piece of electronic equipment that is put into the cochlea during an operation. It takes over the job of the damaged or destroyed hair cells in the cochlea by turning sounds into electrical signals that stimulate the hearing nerve directly.
A kid with hearing loss may attend a special school, special classes within a regular school, or be part of a regular classroom. Depending on how severe their hearing loss is, some kids may work with audiologists or speech-language pathologists to help them develop their hearing and speaking skills.
Some people with hearing loss may need to use special techniques like these to communicate:
What about talking on the phone? Thanks to a telecommunication device (also called a TDD), a conversation can be typed out instead of spoken. The messages appear on a special screen or on a printout.
You might wonder how a hearing-impaired person could see a movie or watch TV. Closed-captioned TV shows and movies provide text at the bottom of the screen, so people with hearing loss can read along to follow the action.
So hearing-impaired kids can go to school, talk on the phone, and watch a movie. If that sounds a lot like a typical kid's life, you're right!
Reviewed by: Thierry Morlet, PhD
Date reviewed: May 2012
|BrainPop This is a great site for kids with informational movies about science, anatomy, weather, and more.|
|HandSpeak This site is for people who have hearing impairments and anyone who knows someone with a hearing impairment. Learn hundreds of words and phrases in American Sign Language (ASL) here. Quick, animated movies show you how to move your hands.|
|H.E.A.R. Since 1988 H.E.A.R. has led the fight in hearing loss prevention among musicians, music industry workers and music fans.|
|National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders This division of the National Institutes of Health is devoted to preventing, detecting, diagnosing, and treating hearing problems and other communication disorders.|
|Hearing Impairment: Advice From Kristin What's it like to have trouble hearing? Kristin can tell you. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Taking Care of Your Ears How do you take care of your ears? Find out in this article for kids.|
|What Is an Ear Infection? A middle ear infection happens when germs like bacteria and viruses get in your middle ear and cause trouble. Read this article to find out more.|
|Can Loud Music Hurt My Ears? Loud music can cause temporary and permanent hearing loss. Learn how to protect your ears so you won't be saying, "Huh? What did you say?"|
|Going to the Audiologist When a kid has trouble hearing, an audiologist can help. That's a person specially trained to understand how hearing works and to help kids who don't hear normally.|
|Meningitis Meningitis is a serious illness that affects the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Find out more in this article for kids.|
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