You’ve just left a concert and your ears are ringing and your hearing is muffled. Or you enjoyed a night of fireworks with your grandkids. Now you can barely hear their pleas for ice cream as you take them home. These are examples of instances when you’ve damaged your hearing. There are other instances when the damage is more subtle. These events occur over time and go unnoticed as they progress into serious hearing problems. But what if there were treatments available for your sudden bouts of hearing loss?
What happens in those moments after damage occurs? Could early treatment prevent the extent of the damage? Let’s examine what researchers have discovered about early hearing loss treatment.
A hearing loss study was performed by researchers at Harvard University and the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine in 2018. For the first time, researchers used an optical laser, which is typically used to map the retina, to examine what happens in your ears after a harmful event.
As they observed a non-human test subject, the damaging sound entered the inner ear. Researchers watched as sound waves, similar to ocean waves, crashed repeatedly onto the delicate microscopic hair cells that pick up sound waves. As the sound waves moved across the hair cells, the cells were frayed, bent, and cracked. In some cases, the hair cells were completely obliterated.
Unlike other cells in your body, these cells don’t heal or grow back.
These results were expected, but what came next stunned the researchers.
Once the harmful sounds stopped assaulting the tiny hairs that enable you to hear, potassium ions began to build up in the ear. Potassium is an essential nutrient that helps cells balance their fluid levels and remove toxins.
As the potassium accumulated, it drew fluid into the inner ear from surrounding cells, causing the inner ear to swell. Swelling, or inflammation, is an immune response the body uses to “flush out” invaders.
In this case, the invader wasn’t something that could be flushed out, like germs.
The swelling made matters worse by damaging the nerve synapses that transmit messages to the brain. This damage is likely what makes it difficult for people with hearing loss to hear someone speak when there is background noise.
If treatment were to take place within minutes or hours of the harmful event, researchers believe they could reduce the swelling, as well as the degree of hearing loss.
Slowing hearing loss progression
This study demonstrates how important early intervention is when it comes to treating hearing loss. It’s not only the minutes and hours without treatment that make hearing loss worse. It’s also the years many people wait before getting a hearing test or consider purchasing hearing aids.
What happens when you delay treatment?
Untreated hearing loss has a cascade effect on your overall health, not just your hearing.
Delaying treatment has been shown to contribute to the following:
- Your brain becomes overworked trying to understand what people are saying.
- You become tired in social situations and may choose to spend less time with friends, family members. and taking part in your favorite activities.
- You’re more likely to become lonely, frustrated, anxious, and depressed.
- Your overworked brain takes resources from other parts of your brain, which affects memory and cognitive skills. It becomes more difficult to learn new things or understand instructions, which makes it more difficult to be active.
- At the same time, your brain’s hearing center starts to shut down. As it does, the progression of your hearing loss accelerates. MRI scans will show the brain shrinking in size.
- Understanding what words and sounds mean is facilitated by the brain’s hearing center. So, it’s highly possible you may lose your ability to communicate.
- As this part of your brain shuts down, the atrophy will spread to other parts of the brain. This can lead to dementia and a general decline in your health.
It may take time for individuals experiencing hearing loss to realize they need hearing aids. By this time, the hearing loss is likely moderate to profound. Once they start wearing hearing aids, they need to relearn the brain functions they’ve lost.
Retraining your brain is not an easy task and can be very frustrating. While you may not be able to get your hearing back completely, hearing aids will help undo some of the damage.
Getting help early is key to saving your hearing and stopping this chain of events. You’re never too young to get a hearing test. If you recognize any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, talk to a hearing specialist about hearing loss solutions as soon as possible.