How The Ear Works And Common Conditions Affecting The Ear

by support on March 25, 2013 · 1 comment

in Ear Facts


Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at

How the Ear Works – A Simplistic Overview Of An Extremely Complex [And Amazing] Organ.

The ear is a pretty amazing organ and it never ceases to amaze me the amount of information we’re able to take in with the slightest of sounds. To do this, our ears perform an incredible amount of complex tasks before our brain finally “translates” and “interprets” the new information.

The ear has three main parts: the outer ear (which includes the external auditory canal), the middle ear, and the inner ear which can also be divided into two organs.

The outer ear (the part you can see) opens into the ear canal. Working your way down the ear canal, the tympanic membrane, otherwise know as the eardrum, separates the ear canal (outer ear) from the middle ear.

Inside the middle ear, you will find three very small bones called the malleus, incus and stapes whose sole purpose is to help amplify and transfer sound to the inner ear. You may have heard the terms hammer, anvil and stirrup for the same 3 bones. These terms are the respective layman’s equivalent. The first 3 are the scientific nomenclature for them.

The inner ear is further divided and can be thought of as two organs: the semicircular (sometimes semi-lunar) canals which serve as the body’s balance organ and the cochlea which serves as the body’s microphone, converting sound pressure impulses from the outer ear into electrical impulses which are passed on to the brain via the auditory nerve.

So how does a “noise” or “sound” get translated?

Any source of sound sends vibrations or sound waves into the air. Our external ear (pinna/e) picks up those waves and funnel them through/down the ear canal. They strike the eardrum which because it is elastic, it vibrates.

The vibrations are passed to the three small bones of the middle ear, which transmit them to the cochlea which in turn is filled with fluid. Inside one of the tubes, tiny hairs pick up the vibrations and convert them into nerve impulses. These impulses are delivered to the brain via the auditory nerve. The brain interprets the impulses as sound (music, voice, a car horn, etc.).

Medical Conditions That Can Affect Your Hearing Health

Many medical conditions, such as those listed below, can affect your hearing health. It seems obvious to say, but treating these can lead to improved or in some cases, restored hearing.

There is the other side of the spectrum, also obvious, but if nothing is done with some conditions, it is possible to suffer irreversible hearing impairment or deafness. It therefore goes without say that if you suspect that you or your loved one has a problem with their hearing, go and get your/their hearing tested. At least you’ll know if it’s just “selective hearing” that is the problem.


We would describe this condition as having a “ringing in the ears,” but noises can vary and range from things like clicking, buzzing or humming at the one end to a loud roaring at the other.

Research tells us that in most cases, damage to the endings of the auditory nerve in the inner ear will cause this condition. As you can imagine, this nerve is extremely important for acute hearing and so any damage to it is likely to bring with it some sort of hearing impairment, in this case, tinnitus.

Apparently, this condition can also be a natural accompaniment of advancing age but exposure to loud noise is likely to be the main cause resulting in tinnitus.

Consideration should be given to modern technology as a leading cause to. With the advent of mobile devices that we’re able to download music etc. to, it is not uncommon to see someone with their device “plugged into their ears” at any time of day or night. What is alarming is that passers by or other passengers in public transport, are able to hear loud and clearly, what someone else is listening to, more often than not, very annoyingly. It is not surprising that people young and old are experiencing ear damage.

Medical treatments and assistive hearing devices are often helpful to those with this condition. For a holistic approach, why not look at the article about Tinnitus Miracle for an alternative with an extremely high success rate in curing this condition.

Otitis Media

A very common ailment that we’ve probably all experienced at one time or another. We would describe it as having a really sore ear-ache but specialists would call it otitis media (an infection or inflammation of the middle ear).

It’s mostly common in children occurring in one or both ears. Worst case scenario is that if it’s left undiagnosed and treated medical reports tells us that this can lead to infection of the mastoid bone behind the ear, a ruptured ear drum and of course hearing loss.

This is a very treatable condition so in cases of [severe] ear-ache, do make an appointment to see your doctor to have it checked out.

Swimmer’s Ear

A condition called Swimmer’s Ear mainly because this is a very common complaint for swimmers who do not use earplugs for their training. Water gets trapped in the outer ear (ear canal) resulting in bacteria multiplying in the warm moist environment and finally an infection of the outer ear structures. The medical term is otitis externa.

Naturally, the condition is not limited to swimmers as water can get trapped when bathing or showering with the same results.

Although it typically occurs in swimmers, other activities such as bathing or showering can also contribute to this common infection.

In severe cases, the ear canal may swell shut leading to temporary hearing loss and making administration of medications difficult.


Earwax (also known as cerumen), contrary to what you might think is actually good. Its purpose is to trap dust and dirt, preventing these “invaders” from reaching the extremely sensitive eardrum.

It is produced by special glands in the outer ear canal. In normal circumstances it accumulates, dries and then falls out of the ear on its own or it is wiped out, often, incorrectly, by using cotton buds/swabs. We shouldn’t use these to “dig out” the wax because in most cases we end up pushing the wax deeper into the ear and with the added risk of perforating the eardrum.

Blocked ears by earwax is easily treated with a visit to your doctor where you will have your ear/s syringed with warm water. The wax is naturally dislodged and flushed out quite literally opening up your ears again. Quite a liberating experience if you have never had it done. It’s like having a new set of ears fitted J

Perforated Eardrum

The eardrum (tympanic membrane) is a thin membrane that separates the outer ear (ear canal) from the middle ear. A perforated eardrum then, is, as the name implies, a hole or rupture in this membrane.

Since the eardrum is instrumental in amplifying sound waves received in the outer ear to the cochlear in the inner ear, a perforated eardrum will result in a less than effective means to do this delicate task and therefore a decreased sense of hearing. The extent of this loss of hearing will be dependant on the degree of the perforation and/or the location of it. Occasionally, a discharge is all associated with a perforated eardrum as well as pain being experienced.

With a hole in the membrane, this obviously exposes the middle ear to risk of serious problems since dust, dirt, water, bacteria etc. have a direct path to through the “open window”.

Therefore, aside from the diminished hearing, it is important to have this seen to. On occasion, a perforated eardrum will heal itself but other times surgery is required to repair the hole. Your doctor and tell you how to “block” the hole until a more permanent solution is acquired.

Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease

Autoimmune inner ear disease (AIED) is a little more complex and occurs “behind the scenes”. By that I mean that it occurs when the body’s immune system attacks it’s own cells mistaking them for virus cells or bacteria. This all happens in the inner ear causing an inflammation.

This definitely something to diagnose sooner than later if you want a good outcome. Recognize the following symptoms for AIED:

  • sudden hearing loss in one ear progressing rapidly to the second
  • continues loss of hearing over weeks or months
  • feeling of ear fullness
  • vertigo
  • tinnitus

Medications are primarily used to treat this disease but hearing aids and cochlear implants are helpful in some cases.


On occasion, poor Eustachian tube function together with middle ear infection, can cause a skin growth in the middle ear behind the eardrum. This skin phenomenon is called a cholesteatoma. It is possible for a cholesteatoma to be present at birth but the condition, whenever it occurs, can only be diagnosed by a medical examination.

If left untreated, a cholesteatoma can lead to bone erosion as well as the spread of the ear infection to localized areas such as the inner ear and brain. If left untreated, best case, deafness can occur and worst case, brain abscess, meningitis, and death can occur.

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