Hearing is their main job, but it's not all our ears do. These delicate organs also need care and protection, so let's take a look at how they work and what conditions and problems can affect them.
There's a lot more to an ear than what you see on the side of your head. The ear is made up of three different sections that work together to collect sounds and relay them to the brain: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.
The outer ear, the part that is visible on the side of your head, is called the pinna or auricle. It's made of tough cartilage covered by skin. The pinna's main job is to gather sounds and funnel them to the ear canal, which leads to the middle ear. The pinna, which includes the earlobe, is the part that people pierce to wear earrings.
The ear canal, the hollow passage that leads to the eardrum, is also part of the outer ear. Glands in the skin lining the ear canal produce earwax, which protects the canal by cleaning out dirt and helping to prevent infections.
The middle ear is an air-filled cavity about the size of a pea. It turns sound waves into vibrations and delivers them to the inner ear. The middle ear is separated from the outer ear by the eardrum, or tympanic membrane, a thin, cone-shaped piece of tissue stretched tight across the ear canal.
To hear properly, the pressure on both sides of your eardrum needs to be equal. When you go up or down in elevation, the air pressure changes and you may feel a popping sensation as your ears adjust. Ears are able to adjust thanks to the narrow Eustachian tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and acts as a sort of pressure valve, opening to keep the pressure equalized on both sides of the eardrum.
The middle ear also includes the three smallest bones in the body, located just past the eardrum and collectively known as the ossicles. The ossicles consist of:
The inner ear consists of two tiny organs called the cochlea and the semicircular canals. The snail-shaped cochlea act as a sort of microphone, converting the vibrations from the middle ear into nerve impulses that travel to the brain along the cochlear nerve, also known as the auditory nerve.
The semicircular canals look like three tiny, interconnected tubes sticking out in loops from the top of the cochlea. It's their job to help you balance. The canals are filled with fluid and lined with tiny hairs. When your head moves, the fluid in the canals sloshes around, moving the hairs. The hairs send this position information as impulses through the vestibular nerve to your brain. The brain interprets these impulses and sends messages to the muscles that help keep you balanced.
When you spin around and stop, the reason you feel dizzy is because the fluid in your semicircular canals continues to slosh around for awhile, giving your brain the idea that you're still spinning even when you aren't. When the fluid stops moving, the dizziness goes away.
The cochlear nerve, which is attached to the cochlea and relays sound information to the brain, and the vestibular nerve, which carries balance information from the semicircular canals to the brain, are collectively known as the vestibulocochlear nerve, or 8th cranial nerve.
When something vibrates, it makes a sound. Most of the sounds we hear and interpret are vibrations in air (but they can happen in other gases, and in liquids or solids).
When an object or thing vibrates, it flexes in and out. Flexing out pushes the object against the air molecules around it. These molecules in turn push against the molecules next to them. The vibration created travels outward in this manner, much like a ripple or wave. This is a process called compression.
Flexing in while vibrating creates a drop in air pressure that pulls nearby air molecules toward an object. This, in turn, creates another drop in pressure that pulls in the surrounding air molecules, and so on. This process is called rarefaction.
These waves of change in air pressure — compression and rarefaction — are what we hear as sounds.
When a sound wave reaches the ear, it's corralled by the pinna and directed into the ear canal. The pinna, through its distinctive shape and curves, helps us determine the direction a sound is coming from. Sounds coming from different places bounce off the pinna differently. The brain can recognize the difference and decide if the sound is coming from in front or behind.
The two pinnae (plural of pinna) of the left and right ears work together to determine if a sound is coming from the right or left. A sound that's coming from the right reaches the right eardrum sooner than the left. It also sounds slightly louder in the right ear. The brain compares the input from both ears and uses this to decide which side the sound came from.
Once inside the ear canal, sound waves vibrate the eardrum, which is very sensitive. The tensor tympani muscle that's attached to the eardrum keeps it taut. So the entire eardrum vibrates no matter where it is hit by a sound wave. This allows the eardrum to detect even the slightest fluctuations in air pressure.
As the eardrum is moved back and forth by the compressions and rarefactions of sound waves, the ossicles move, too. The movement of these tiny bones transmits and amplifies sound waves into the cochlea.
The cochlea are filled with fluid and contain thousands of tiny fibers. These fibers — which are short and stiff in some areas and longer and more flexible in others in order to decipher frequencies (pitches) — detect movement of sound waves.
When sound waves travel into the cochlea, they reach the fibers and give off a burst of energy. This burst of energy is detected by something called the organ of corti, a structure that lines the cochlea and contains thousands of tiny hair cells. When energy is released, it's strong enough to move these hairs.
The organ of corti sends an electrical impulse to the brain telling it which hairs (and how many) were moved. This information helps the brain's cerebral cortex determine the pitch and volume of a sound. So, for example, when a person hears a loud sound, it's because a stronger burst of energy affected more of the hairs in the organ of corti.
Given the outer ear's exposure to the elements and the middle ear's connection to the nose via the Eustachian tube, more than a few things can affect the ear and bring on hearing loss. Fortunately, most of these conditions can be treated effectively when detected early.
Some of the more common ear problems include:
There's an old saying about how you should never stick anything in your ear except your elbow. It's meant to be funny, but there's a kernel of truth to it. Sticking things like cotton swabs and fingernails into ears can scratch the ear canal, push earwax deeper into the ear, and even rupture the eardrum. If you find yourself having trouble removing earwax from your child's ear canal, seek a doctor's help.
Protecting kids' hearing is mostly a matter of common sense. You can start by convincing your kids to turn down the volume on the stereo and TV and especially on portable music players. If you know that they will be exposed to loud noises (at a concert, car race, construction site, etc.), make sure they bring protection for their ears (like earplugs or protective earmuffs/headphones).
When kids are out in the sun for an extended period of time, don't forget to put sunscreen on their ears to prevent them from getting burned. Likewise, if kids will be outside in the cold for a long time, make sure they bring along warm hats that cover the ears to protect against frostbite.
Many kids today — girls and guys alike — decide to pierce their ears. If your child has this done, keep a few things in mind. Piercings should always be done by reputable, trained practitioners in clean, sanitary surroundings. Pierced areas of the ear need to be washed daily using a saline solution or triple antibiotic ointment, and earrings need to be rotated at least twice a day to keep the holes open while they heal. Pierced earlobes generally take about 6 to 8 weeks to heal. Pierced ear cartilage takes 4 months to a year to heal completely.
If your child has any hearing loss or hearing problems, contact your doctor right away. Depending on the cause, hearing loss can be irreversible. But when treated early, hearing damage often can be minimized.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen. MD
Date reviewed: July 2011
|Vestibular Disorders Association The Vestibular Disorders Association (VEDA) provides general information to the public about vestibular (inner ear) disorders that cause problems with hearing, balance and vision.|
|American Speech-Language-Hearing Association This group provides services for professionals in audiology, speech-language pathology, and speech and hearing science, and advocates for people with communication disabilities.|
|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.|
|American Academy of Audiology The American Academy of Audiology, the world's largest professional organization of, by and for more than 10,000 audiologists, is dedicated to providing quality hearing care to the public.|
|Middle Ear Infections Ear infections are common among kids and, often, painful. Find out what causes them and how they're treated.|
|First Aid: Earaches An earache requires a visit to the doctor's office. Here's what to do if your child complains of ear pain.|
|Dealing With Earwax Earwax helps protect the eardrum and fight infection. Parents shouldn't attempt to remove earwax at home, as doing so risks damage to the ear canal and, possibly, a child's hearing.|
|What's Hearing Loss? Hearing loss happens when there is a problem with one or more parts of the ear or ears. Someone who has hearing loss may be able to hear some sounds or nothing at all. To learn more, read this article for kids.|
|Hearing Evaluation in Children Hearing problems can be treated if they're caught early, so it's important to get your child's hearing screened early and evaluated regularly.|
|Hearing Impairment Hearing impairment occurs when there's a problem with or damage to one or more parts of the ear. The degree of impairment can vary widely. Find out its causes and what can be done to help correct it.|
|What's Earwax? Why do our ears make earwax? Find out in this article for kids.|
|Hearing Impairment: Kristin's Story You wouldn't know it to meet her, but when Kristin was only 18 months old, her doctors diagnosed her with a hearing impairment. She had to learn to hear in a very different way from her peers - and developed some handy lipreading skills along the way!|
|How Will I Know if My Child Has Trouble Hearing? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Swimmer's Ear (External Otitis) External otitis (swimmer's ear) is an infection of the ear canal that can be caused by different types of bacteria or fungi. Find out how to prevent or treat it.|
|What's Cauliflower Ear? Have you ever seen someone whose ear looks bumpy and lumpy? It could be cauliflower ear! Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Can Chronic Ear Infections Cause Long-Term Hearing Loss? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|What Happens When a Doctor Removes Earwax? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|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.|
|Swimmer's Ear You swam! You splashed! And now you have it: swimmer's ear.|
|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?"|
|Senses Experiment: Do You Hear What I Hear? Test your hearing with this experiment.|
|Ears Hearing is their main job, but it's not all your ears do. Find out all about them in this body basics article for teens.|
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