Parts of the Ear

Unless you are deaf or know someone who is part of the deaf community, you probably give little thought to your ears. Deafness occurs due to malfunction, infection, or damage to the ear. The type of deafness or loss of hearing experienced by individuals varies according to where the damage or malfunction occurs. You may be surprised to learn that deafness is ranked as the number one birth defect in the US. Even though there have been four hundred genetic links to hearing loss, between twenty and forty percent of deaf individuals have idiopathic hearing loss meaning there is no real link or reason known. The greater percent of deaf babies born each year, have hearing parents. The deaf community and deaf culture surprisingly gives little thought to the causes of hearing loss. Most likely this is due to their primary focus of dealing with the challenges deaf people face in a hearing society. Deaf education and education among hearing communities can help us understand the types of hearing loss, treatment and intervention options, communication options, and how to prevent hearing loss or protect residual hearing for deaf people.The goal of deaf education is to learn about ways to optimize residual hearing or protect you and loved ones from preventable hearing loss begins with an understanding of the parts of the ear.

The ear is composed of three sections, each section has individual functions and parts that work together to aid in our ability to clearly hear and understand sounds. When any one of these sections or parts fails to work properly, hearing loss occurs. The three sections include the outer structure made up of the pinna, the section of the ear we see, the ear canal some of us are obsessed with shoving cotton swabs and other things into in a misguided effort to clean, and the eardrum that is a barrier between the outer and middle ear. The eardrum is also that part of the ear responsible for conducting sound to the nerves and boney structures within the inner ear chamber. The middle section of the ear also includes the eardrum as well as the ossicles or small boney structures of the middle ear. The inner ear structures include the cochlea, and auditory nerve.

Injury, disease, or malfunctions in the outer or middle ear results in conductive hearing loss. Deaf people with sensorineural hearing loss because of a problem within the inner ear have permanent hearing losses. Sensorineural loss is often referred to as nerve deafness. Conductive hearing loss can often be cured or greatly improved with treatment and correction. Unfortunately, it is harder to obtain significant hearing if the hearing loss is nerve deafness. Looking at the functions of each part of the ear can help us understand the different types of hearing loss.

The Outer Ear

The outer structure of the ear is the pinna, ear canal, and eardrum. The pinna is that part of the ear we see, the ear lobe, the earflap and the outer ear that is shaped to collect or direct sound waves into the ear canal. Sound then travels through the ear canal or auditory canal to the tympanic membrane or eardrum. Within the auditory canal is a yellow wax-like substance known as cerumen or earwax that lubricates the canal and eardrum. Injury to the outer ear, inflammation within the ear, and obstruction by excessive earwax or other substances can result in a conductive hearing loss.

The Middle Ear

The middle ear includes the back portion of the eardrum along with the ossicles, sometimes referred to as the boney structures of hammer, anvil, and stirrup. Sound waves directed through the ear canal hit the eardrum and cause these tiny bone structures to vibrate. The structures of the outer and middle ear combine to form the conductive system which then transfers these sound waves into the fluid that fills the inner ear and bathes the nerve hairs located in the cochlea that make up the auditory nerve system. When any of the parts within the conductive system fail to form properly before birth or are injured or diseased, conductive hearing loss occurs. When diagnosed, and treated soon enough, conductive hearing loss can often be cured.

The Inner Ear

The inner ear houses the cochlea, auditory nerve bundle, and auditory centers in the brain. After the structures of the middle ear transfers vibration through the fluid within the inner ear, the tiny nerve hairs located within the cochlea transfer sound waves along the auditory nerve. These vibrations then are further transferred to the centers within the brain that interpret sound. Nerve deafness occurs when damage involves the structures in the inner ear. Though some individuals may recover hearing to a degree with cochlear implants, for most individuals with nerve deafness, the condition is permanent. 

There is ongoing debate within the deaf community and deaf culture over the use of cochlear implants to cure deafness. The deaf culture often has accepted their deafness as simply a part of who they are and fail to see deafness as a condition to be fixed. Deaf culture advocates for the acceptance of deaf people as normal individuals from a different culture that have their own unique language and means of communication. Deaf education presents the causes of hearing loss and the types of hearing loss that can be helped by medical or surgical intervention. This supports the understanding that some individuals embrace their deafness as part of their identity. As such, deaf individuals should not require fixing to be accepted into a community setting. Deaf education within both deaf settings and the hearing community can help bring acceptance and understanding between the hearing and deaf communities.