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Ear – The gift of hearing

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About a year back when I obtained free tickets from my company (after all who can let go of free stuff) to visit an amusement park famous for some of the thrilling roller-coaster rides in Chicago called Six Flags-Great America, I couldn?t let go of the opportunity and decided to experience it with my dear ones.  What usually turns out to be a thrilling experience for most turned out to be an inconvenience for me in the end.  By the time, I sat on about 8 to10 rides, I felt dizzy and nauseated.  All I wanted to do by this time was to just close my eyes and go off to sleep but no there was a long drive from the park to my home.  Boy, did I feel even more dizzier by the time I reached home.  Make no mistake about it but I am no novice to roller coasters and although I sat on so many different roller coaster rides before, not once did I feel this way and I thought to myself what is wrong with me today. I knew exactly what was causing it; an imbalance caused by the inner ear but why didn?t this happen before. Why did it happen only this one time? I had no answer. Was it too much of G-Force or was it an ear infection I had during the time or was it a combination of both. I am not the only one who had this experience but there are scores of individuals who may have this experience.  But the good news is after I relaxed for a while, I felt good again. 

When I took the time to research more about the ear, I thanked Almighty God for the gift he has given us, the gift of hearing and that?s when I began to realize how empty our life would be had we not received this gift.  Think about all those men, women and children who do not have this gift. 

Your ears are extraordinary organs. They pick up all the sounds around you and then translate this information into a form your brain can understand. One of the most remarkable things about this process is that it is completely mechanical. Your sense of smell, taste and vision all involve chemical reactions, but your hearing system is based solely on physical movement.

In this article, we will try to understand parts of the ear, how it works and also how we experience dizziness, hearing loss, motion sickness, building up of ear wax and ways at avoiding ear damage.

To understand how your ears hear sound, you first need to understand just what sound is. An object produces sound when it vibrates in matter. When something vibrates in the atmosphere, it moves the air particles around it. Those air particles in turn move the air particles around them, carrying the pulse of the vibration through the air.  We hear different sounds from different vibrating objects because of variations in the sound wave frequency.

To hear a sound, your ear has to do three basic things:

  • Direct the sound waves into the hearing part of the ear
  • Sense the fluctuations in air pressure
  •  Translate these fluctuations into an electrical signal that your brain can understand

The ear is made up of three different sections: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. These parts all work together so you can hear and process sounds.

The Outer Ear

The pinna or auricle, the outer part of the ear, serves to “catch” the sound waves. Your outer ear is pointed forward and it has a number of curves. This structure helps you determine the direction of a sound. If a sound is coming from behind you or above you, it will bounce off the pinna in a different way than if it is coming from in front of you or below you. The main job of the outer ear is to collect sounds, whether they’re your wife’s nagging or your hubbie?s yelling.

The outer ear also includes the ear canal, where wax is produced. Earwax is that gunky stuff that protects the canal. Earwax contains chemicals that fight off infections that could hurt the skin inside the ear canal. It also collects dirt to help keep the ear canal clean.

The Middle Ear

Once the sound waves travel into the ear canal, they vibrate the tympanic membrane, commonly called the eardrum. The eardrum is a thin, cone-shaped piece of skin, about 10 millimeters (0.4 inches) wide. It is positioned between the ear canal and the middle ear. The middle ear is connected to the throat via the eustachian tube. Since air from the atmosphere flows in from your outer ear as well as your mouth, the air pressure on both sides of the eardrum remains equal. This pressure balance lets your eardrum move freely back and forth.

The middle ear’s main job is to take those sound waves and turn them into vibrations that are delivered to the inner ear. The eardrum separates the outer ear from the middle ear and the ossicles. What are ossicles? They are the three tiniest, most delicate bones in your body. They include:

  • the malleus, which is attached to the eardrum and means “hammer” in Latin
  • the incus, which is attached to the malleus and means “anvil” in Latin
  • the stapes, the smallest bone in the body, which is attached to the incus and means “stirrup” in Latin

When sound waves reach the eardrum, they cause the eardrum to vibrate. When the eardrum vibrates, it moves the tiny ossicles – from the hammer to the anvil and then to the stirrup. These bones help sound move along on its journey into the inner ear.

The Inner Ear

Sound comes into the inner ear as vibrations and enters the cochlea, a small, curled tube in the inner ear. The cochlea is filled with liquid, which is set into motion, like a wave, when the ossicles vibrate.

The cochlea is also lined with tiny cells covered in tiny hairs that are so small you would need a microscope to see them. They may be small, but they’re awfully important. When sound reaches the cochlea, the vibrations (sound) cause the hairs on the cells to move, creating nerve signals that the brain understands as sound. The brain puts it together and hooray! You hear your baby?s giggles.

Ears do more than hear. They keep you balanced, too. In the inner ear, there are three small loops above the cochlea called semicircular canals. Like the cochlea, they are also filled with liquid and have thousands of microscopic hairs. When you move your head, the liquid in the semicircular canals moves, too. The liquid moves the tiny hairs, which send a nerve message to your brain about the position of your head. In less than a second, your brain sends messages to the right muscles so that you keep your balance.

After we have seen the different parts of the ear and how it controls hearing and balance, let us now switch to topics ranging from loudness, hearing loss to dizziness and motion sickness and how we can prevent it.

Sometimes the liquid in your semicircular canals keeps moving after you’ve stopped moving. To understand this, fill a cup halfway with water. Now move the cup around in a circle in front of you, and then stop. Notice how the water keeps swishing around, even after the cup is still? That’s what happens in your semicircular canals when you spin in circles or go on the Tilt-A-Whirl at the amusement park. When you stop spinning or step off the ride, the fluid in your semicircular canals is still moving. The hairs inside the canals are sensing movement even though you’re standing still. That’s why you might feel dizzy – your brain is getting two different messages and is confused about the position of your head. Once the fluid in the semicircular canals stops moving, your brain gets the right message and you regain your balance.

Loudness is measured in decibels (dB) – this is the force of sound waves against the ear. The louder the sound, the more decibels. Here are approximate decibel levels for some everyday sounds:

Sound  —  Intensity(db)
Ticking of a Watch  — 20
Whisper  — 30
Quiet Residential area — 40   (Quiet)
Public Library   — 40   (Quiet)
Normal Speech — 50-60
Car Traffic  —  70
Alarm Clock  —  80
Loud shout   — 90   (Can damage hearing after 8 hours of exposure per day)
Screaming child — 90   (Can damage hearing after 8 hours of exposure per day)
Amplified Rock Music — 110-130 (Can damage hearing after 30 mins of exposure per day)
Car horn  — 120   (Can damage hearing after 7.5 mins of exposure per day)
Jet Engine —  130   (Can damage hearing after 3.7 mins of exposure per day)
Military jet  — 130   (Can damage hearing after 3.7 mins of exposure per day)

When people say they are used to loud music they are actually saying that some of the nerve cells responsible for their hearing have died. Sadly, the cells do not regenerate. This gives rise to temporary deafness. Hearing damage is related to the loudness of the sound and the length of exposure to it. Therefore you will find that most Musicians are in a vulnerable position as they experience both.

Hearing Loss

People can lose all or some of their ability to hear because of loud noises, infections, head injuries, brain damage and genetic diseases. Hearing loss is common in older people. There are several types of hearing loss:

  • Conductive Hearing Loss: occurs when sound vibrations from the tympanic membrane to the inner ear are blocked. This may be caused by ear wax in the auditory canal, fluid buildup in the middle ear, ear infections or abnormal bone growth.
  • Sensorineural Hearing Loss: occurs when there is damage to the vestibulocochlear (auditory) nerve. This type of hearing loss may be caused by head injury, birth defects, high blood pressure or stroke.
  • Presbycusis: occurs because of changes in the inner ear. This is a very common type of hearing loss that happens gradually in older age.
  • Tinnitus: people with tinnitus hear a constant ringing or roaring sound. The cause of this ringing cannot always be found. Some cases of tinnitus are caused by ear wax, ear infections or a reaction to antibiotics, but there are many other possible causes of this disorder. 

Should You Clean Your Ears?

Wax is not formed in the deep part of the ear canal near the eardrum, but only in the outer part of the canal. This wax is supposed to trap dust and dirt particles to keep them from reaching the eardrum. So when a patient has wax blocked up against the eardrum, it is often because he has been probing his ear with such things as cotton-tipped applicators, bobby pins, or twisted napkin corners. These objects only push the wax in deeper. Also, the skin of the ear canal and the eardrum is very thin and fragile and is easily injured.

Earwax is healthy in normal amounts and serves to coat the skin of the ear canal where it acts as a temporary water repellent. The absence of earwax may result in dry, itchy ears. Most of the time the ear canals are self-cleaning; that is, there is a slow and orderly migration of ear canal skin from the eardrum to the ear opening. Old earwax is constantly being transported from the ear canal to the ear opening where it usually dries, flakes, and falls out.

Under ideal circumstances, you should never have to clean your ear canals. However, we all know that this isn’t always so. If you want to clean your ears, you can wash the external ear with a cloth over a finger, but do not insert anything into the ear canal.

Dizziness and Motion Sickness

Each year more than two million people visit a doctor for dizziness, and an untold number suffer with motion sickness, which is the most common medical problem associated with travel.

What Is Dizziness?

Some people describe a balance problem by saying they feel dizzy, lightheaded, unsteady, or giddy. This feeling of imbalance or dysequilibrium, without a sensation of turning or spinning, is sometimes due to an inner ear problem.

What Is Vertigo?

A few people describe their balance problem by using the word vertigo, which comes from the Latin verb “to turn”. They often say that they or their surroundings are turning or spinning. Vertigo is frequently due to an inner ear problem.

What Is Motion Sickness and Sea Sickness?

Some people experience nausea and even vomiting when riding in an airplane, automobile, or amusement park ride, and this is called motion sickness. Many people experience motion sickness when riding on a boat or ship, and this is called seasickness even though it is the same disorder.
Motion sickness or seasickness is usually just a minor annoyance and does not signify any serious medical illness, but some travelers are incapacitated by it, and a few even suffer symptoms for a few days after the trip.

Dizziness, vertigo, and motion sickness all relate to the sense of balance and equilibrium.
Your sense of balance is maintained by a complex interaction of the following parts of the nervous system:

  • The inner ears (also called the labyrinth), which monitor the directions of motion, such as turning, or forward-backward, side-to-side, and up-and-down motions.
  • The eyes, which monitor where the body is in space (i.e. upside down, rightside up, etc.) and also directions of motion.
  • The skin pressure receptors such as in the joints and spine, which tell what part of the body is down and touching the ground.
  • The muscle and joint sensory receptors, which tell what parts of the body are moving.
  • The central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), which processes all the bits of information from the four other systems to make some coordinated sense out of it all.

The symptoms of motion sickness and dizziness appear when the central nervous system receives conflicting messages from the other four systems. 

For example, suppose you are riding through a storm, and your airplane is being tossed about by air turbulence. But your eyes do not detect all this motion because all you see is the inside of the airplane. Then your brain receives messages that do not match with each other. You might become “air sick.”
Or suppose you are sitting in the back seat of a moving car reading a book. Your inner ears and skin receptors will detect the motion of your travel, but your eyes see only the pages of your book. You could become “car sick.”

Or, to use a true medical condition as an example, suppose you suffer inner ear damage on only one side from a head injury or an infection. The damaged inner ear does not send the same signals as the healthy ear. This gives conflicting signals to the brain about the sensation of rotation, and you could suffer a sense of spinning, vertigo, and nausea.

What Can I Do to Reduce Dizziness?

  • Avoid rapid changes in position, especially from lying down to standing up or turning around from one side to the other.
  • Avoid extremes of head motion (especially looking up) or rapid head motion (especially turning or twisting).
  • Eliminate or decrease use of products that impair circulation, e.g. nicotine, caffeine, and salt.
  • Minimize your exposure to circumstances that precipitate your dizziness, such as stress and anxiety or substances to which you are allergic.
  • Avoid hazardous activities when you are dizzy, such as driving an automobile or operating dangerous equipment, or climbing a step ladder, etc.

What Can I Do for Motion Sickness?

Always ride where your eyes will see the same motion that your body and inner ears feel, e.g. sit in the front seat of the car and look at the distant scenery; go up on the deck of the ship and watch the horizon; sit by the window of the airplane and look outside. In an airplane choose a seat over the wings where the motion is the least.

  • Do not read while traveling if you are subject to motion sickness, and do not sit in a seat facing backward.
  • Do not watch or talk to another traveler who is having motion sickness.
  • Avoid strong odors and spicy or greasy foods immediately before and during your travel.

Ears and Altitude

Have you ever wondered why your ears pop when you fly on an airplane? Or why, when they fail to pop, you get an earache? Have you ever wondered why the babies on an airplane fuss and cry so much during descent? Ear problems are the most common medical complaint of airplane travelers, and while they are usually simple, minor annoyances, they occasionally result in temporary pain and hearing loss.

The Ear and Air Pressure

It is the middle ear that causes discomfort during air travel, because it is an air pocket inside the head that is vulnerable to changes in air pressure.  Normally, each time (or each second or third time) you swallow, your ears make a little click or popping sound. This occurs because a small bubble of air has entered your middle ear, up from the back of your nose.
How Can Air Travel Cause Problems?

Air travel is sometimes associated with rapid changes in air pressure. To maintain comfort, the Eustachian tube must open frequently and wide enough to equalize the changes in pressure. This is especially true when the airplane is landing, going from low atmospheric pressure down closer to earth where the air pressure is higher.  Actually, any situation in which rapid altitude or pressure changes occur creates the problem. You may have experienced it when riding in elevators or when diving to the bottom of a swimming pool.

How to Unblock Your Ears

Swallowing activates the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube. You swallow more often when you chew gum or let mints melt in your mouth. These are good air travel practices, especially just before take-off and during descent. Yawning is even better. Avoid sleeping during descent, because you may not be swallowing often enough to keep up with the pressure changes. (The flight attendant will be happy to awaken you just before descent).

Babies’ Ears: Babies cannot intentionally pop their ears, but popping may occur if they are sucking on a bottle or pacifier. Feed your baby during the flight, and do not allow him or her to sleep during descent.

Your ears take care of you, so take care of them. Protect your hearing by wearing earplugs at loud music concerts and around noisy machinery, like in wood or metal shop at school. Keep the volume down on your stereo, especially if you’re in the car or wearing headphones. And one last thing – don’t go poking around in your ears, even with cotton swabs. As you probably know, there’s only one thing that’s safe to put in your ear. Your elbow, of course.

Language defines us as human. Hearing is how we learn speech. As we learn our language as children, we use that language to organize how we see the world. Hearing is how we best receive the speech sounds that contain the ideas, feelings and personalities of other humans. If we lose hearing, we lose a bit of of our humanity. 

Author: Allen Martis- USA

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