How the Ear Works

Anatomy of the Ear

Your ears are extraordinary organs. They pick up all the sounds around you and translate this information into a form your brain can understand. Your hearing system is completely dependent on physical movement. The hearing mechanism in the human body is not only amazing in what it does, but it is a highly sophisticated and robust system.

In easy language, this is what happens. The sound waves are gathered by the outer ear and sent down the ear canal to the eardrum. The sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate, which sets the three tiny bones in the middle ear into motion. The motion of the bones causes the fluid in the inner ear, or cochlea, to move. The movement of the inner ear fluid causes the hair cells in the cochlea to bend, and the hair cells change the movement into electrical impulses. These electric impulses are transmitted to the hearing (auditory) nerve and up to the brain, where they’re interpreted as sound.

Learn more by watching the following video:

About Hearing Loss

Factory Worker

There are several types of hearing loss that we categorize as conductive, sensory, neural, or mixed. Problems affecting the outer or middle ear are referred to as conductive hearing loss. This loss affects a person’s ability to conduct sound to the inner ear. Common in children with ear infections, conductive loss may also stem from ear wax, congenital malformations, or calcium growth. Conductive hearing loss is frequently temporary and treatable.

Sensory hearing loss, or nerve hearing loss, results from damage to the inner ear, meaning the tiny hair cells in the cochlea are damaged and not working well. Power tools, factories, guns, lawn mowers, hair dryers, and MP3 players create a cumulative effect and slowly and imperceptibly erode our hearing. We no longer hear sharply and lose clarity of the spoken word. This type of hearing loss is almost always permanent.

As we age, a type of nerve hearing loss called presbycusis may develop because of a change in blood supply to the ear. This type of nerve related hearing loss may come from heart disease, high blood pressure, or vascular conditions. Neural hearing loss describes a problem with the connection from the cochlea to the brain.

Signs and Symptoms

Most hearing loss occurs gradually, so the symptoms may be hard to recognize. You may notice yourself turning up the volume of the television or asking people to repeat themselves. As our hearing begins to fade, we tend to forget how things sound and we start to live in a quieter world. The softer sounds in our daily world may go missed, yet unnoticed. Contact us if you’re experiencing one or more of the following problems:

Learning to Hear Again

If you have a moderate to severe hearing impairment, the auditory processing centers of the brain have been deprived of information. This is called sensory deprivation!

As a hearing healthcare professional with more than 30 years of experience, I have seen a tremendous difference in how well patients hear and understand after being fitted with hearing instruments. It all depends on the length of time they have suffered from hearing loss. Those who have had an uncorrected hearing impairment of long duration do not gain as much improvement as those who correct their hearing loss earlier. Why is this so?

Hearing and the Brain If a part of the brain is deprived of sensory input, then that information is restored, (i.e. through correction of hearing loss with hearing aids), that portion of the brain that controls your processing and listening skills has to be retrained, and the longer the duration of sensory deprivation, the more important that is. In fact, there is now evidence that a loss of hearing in the ear literally produces physical changes in the brain.

Simply having your hearing corrected with hearing aids can and does force the auditory portion of your brain to go back to work. However, you will do much better with some rehabilitation therapy. At The Hearing Place, we understand this and include counseling with our patients on how to do some simple yet very effective retraining exercises as part of our fitting process.

If you have recently been fitted with new hearing aids, you might want to give one of the following methods a shot and see what happens.


  1. Obtain two copies of a book. For 5 minutes a day, in the morning, have your spouse read aloud as you read along in your copy silently. This causes you to both hear and see the words. After one week, start introducing a small amount of background noise. Just 30 days of this will improve and accelerate your listening skills. Studies have shown that your listening skills will have improved as much in 30 days as they would in two years of wearing the hearing aids alone.
  2. Another way of doing this is to get an audio book and a copy of the written version. Listen to the narrator and follow along reading the book. This will accomplish the same thing as having your loved one read as you follow along. Remember to introduce some background noise after one week.
  3. This type of retraining can also be accomplished with your television. While watching TV, enable your closed captioning option. Again, you will be seeing the words and hearing them at the same time.


Due to the plasticity of the brain, the same phenomenon that causes a physical change in the brain when there is a hearing loss will create positive changes with hearing impairment correction and retraining using the above methods.

Hearing Diagram Remember your measured hearing impairment itself does not change. This is due to physical damage to the ear. Hearing aids cannot prevent or change hearing loss. However, your listening and processing skills can improve to near normal with hearing aids and some retraining.

This figure illustrates exactly how the ear works. However, there is more to what the brain does than just receiving the nerve impulses. There is a portion of your brain that holds your hearing memory. Just like most everything else, hearing can be forgotten.

By Walt Hopkins BC-HIS

Couple's Communication

Tips for Family Members

One of the things we have noticed at The Hearing Place is that the family members of the hearing aid wearer need to understand how to communicate. Even though hearing aids will definitely help the person wearing them hear better, there are still a few things the family can do to make communicating that much easier.

  1. Make sure that the person wearing the hearing instrument knows that you are speaking to them
  2. If you speak slowly, the person wearing the hearing aids will have more time to absorb what is being said
Putting on a heading aid

Tips for Hearing Aid Wearers

For some hearing aid users, getting accustomed to wearing hearing aids and to hearing the sound produced by the hearing aids may take a period of time, especially for those new to amplification. Below are some of the situations that we have encountered during our years of practice.

  1. You are now putting a foreign object in your ear; it may be a while before your ear becomes accustomed to that feeling. Depending on the style of hearing aid you choose, this may or may not occur.
  2. Another thing you may have to adjust to is the sound of your own voice. Due to the placement of the aid your own voice will seem louder. People sometimes describe this as feeling as if they are speaking in a barrel. To others they feel as if they are talking very loudly. Please let your provider know if this is how you feel; there may be adjustments that can be made to the programming that will alleviate some of this.

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(406) 452-2437

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1301 11th Ave S Ste. 4, Great Falls, MT 59405