Have you ever wondered what happens to sound once it enters your ear? To explain the intricate process of hearing, sound must first be identified. Sound is vibrations in the air; these vibrations pass through the outer ear to the eardrum (also called the tympanic membrane) causing it to vibrate. These vibrations pass through the ossicular chain to the cochlea.

The hearing test has shown that the mechanics of the ear from the footplate of the stapes (tiny bone in the middle ear) to the outside world is working just fine. Sound is arriving at the cochlea just like it should.

Inside the cochlea there are 25-30 thousand nerve endings. When sound vibrations enter the cochlea, they pass over the nerve endings, and like wind over a field of wheat, the nerve endings move and this sends a message to the brain.

Every sound you have ever heard has to travel through the entrance to the cochlea, and so this tends to wear out first (or give 4K description of loud sounds hitting that first bend). The entrance area is where we pick up higher frequency sounds like S or F. Deeper sound travels further into the cochlea towards the apex, and that’s where we hear bass sounds like M, N or O.

The most common type of hearing loss is a sensorineural hearing loss. This type of loss is where you have the most wear and tear.

Each nerve ending is wired to a piece of your brain. Unfortunately when hearing loss is untreated it can lead to those neurons in the auditory cortex being shut down due to inactivity, this is known as Synaptic Pruning. However, more recent neuroscience research has found that a process called Neural Plasticity takes place. This is where the neurons in the auditory cortex are reassigned to another task. Or to put it simply, if you don’t use it you lose it.

When Neural Plasticity begins a person will often report that they “can hear, but they can’t understand”. The longer this problem is ignored, the harder it is to return to good hearing. Typically, the ability to understand speech, especially in noisy environments, will get more difficult over time.

The good news is that wearing hearing aids not only helps you hear better right away, but the stimulation your brain receives keeps the brain actively understanding words. So it’s almost like exercise for the hearing mechanism.

Wearing your hearing aids long term will help you look after the speech understanding you have today. We cannot stop further deterioration of your hearing, but we can help reduce deterioration to your speech understanding for as long as possible, hopefully for the rest of your life. Don’t lose it, use it!