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  • Our ears have a very important job – they help us hear all kinds of sounds around us! But sometimes people have trouble hearing. There are various reasons why someone might have difficulty hearing, and a variety of tools are used to test the health of people’s ears and their ability to hear a range of sounds.

    Rights: David Benbennick

    Human ear

    The ears are responsible for hearing sounds and for balance in the human body.

    Types of hearing loss

    Human ears are complex and are responsible not just for hearing sounds but also for our balance. The cause of hearing loss can be varied as can the level of impact. Finding out the cause helps ensure the correct treatment.

    Sensorineural hearing loss

    The inner ear is responsible for sending signals to the brain that help you hear different sounds. Sometimes, the tiny hair cells inside the inner ear can get damaged or stop working properly. When this happens, it can make it hard to hear certain sounds or understand what people are saying.

    Sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by a variety of things such as loud noises, infections or genetics. Some people are born with sensorineural hearing loss, while others develop it later in life.

    There are different treatments available for sensorineural hearing loss such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. These devices can help amplify sounds and make it easier for people with hearing loss to hear and understand what is being said.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Ear structure

    The ear has three parts – the outer, middle and inner ears – which collect sounds from the environment and transmit them to the brain.

    Conductive hearing loss

    The outer ear is the part of the ear that you can see, while the middle ear is the part that is behind the eardrum. Sometimes, there can be a problem with the ear canal, eardrum or tiny bones in the middle ear that can make it hard for sounds to travel through to the inner ear.

    Conductive hearing loss can be caused by things like ear infections, wax build-up or a problem with the eardrum or bones in the middle ear. Sometimes, conductive hearing loss can be temporary and go away on its own. Sometimes, it may require medical treatment.

    Treatment for conductive hearing loss may include medication, surgery or hearing aids. Sometimes, simply removing earwax can help improve hearing.

    Hearing tests

    It’s important to note that hearing aids may not work for everyone and not all types of hearing loss can be treated with hearing aids. If you or someone you know is having trouble hearing, talk to a doctor or audiologist to see if a hearing aid or other treatment option might be helpful. There are a range of different tests used to help accurately diagnose hearing loss.

    An audiogram test

    To do the audiogram test, you will sit in a quiet room and wear a pair of headphones. The doctor will play different sounds, like beeps or tones, through the headphones at different volumes and frequencies.

    When you hear a sound, you will raise your hand or press a button to let the doctor know. The doctor will then mark down which sounds you were able to hear and which ones you couldn’t hear.

    The audiogram test creates a special graph that shows how well you can hear different frequencies or pitches of sounds. The graph looks like a line with different points on it.

    If you have trouble hearing certain sounds, the audiogram can help the doctor figure out what might be causing the problem and what can be done to help you to hear better.

    The audiogram test is an important tool that doctors use to check how well you can hear and to help keep your ears healthy.

    Rights: V Bootham

    Hearing test equipment

    When you get a hearing test, it will be with an audiologist or audiometrist in a soundproof room. There are usually five different tests that check how different parts of your hearing are working: air conduction, bone conduction, speech testing, tympanometry (middle ear function) and acoustic reflex testing.

    Tools to help with hearing

    Hearing difficulties can occur for many different reasons – a hearing aid or cochlear implant can help some people.

    Hearing aids

    Hearing aids have three main parts – a microphone, an amplifier and a speaker. The microphone picks up sounds from the environment around the person wearing the hearing aid and converts those sounds into electrical signals. The amplifier then takes those signals and makes them louder so the person can hear them more easily. Finally, the speaker sends the amplified sound into the person’s ear so they can hear it.

    Rights: Biha, CC BY-SA 2.0

    Hearing aids

    Modern hearing aids are now very small. Here a child is being fitted by an otolaryngologist with a behind-the-ear hearing aid.

    Hearing aids come in different shapes and sizes and can be worn inside the ear or behind the ear. Some hearing aids are also equipped with special features like noise cancellation, which can help make it easier to hear in noisy environments.

    Cochlear implants

    A cochlear implant is a special device that is placed inside a person’s ear to help them hear better. It works by using small electrical signals to stimulate the nerves inside the ear, which then send signals to the brain that the person can hear as sound.

    The cochlear implant has two main parts – an external part that sits behind the ear and an internal part that is surgically implanted inside the ear. The external part has a microphone that picks up sounds, which are then processed by a special computer and sent to the internal part through a small wire. The internal part then sends the electrical signals to the nerves in the ear to help the person hear.

    Rights: Bruce Blaus, CC BY 3.0

    Cochlear implant

    Cochlear implants are a surgically implanted small electronic device that provides the sensation of sound for people with severe hearing loss. They first started being used in the 1970s.

    Image: staff (2014). "Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014". WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436.

    Cochlear implants are very helpful for people who have severe hearing loss and cannot hear well with regular hearing aids. They can allow people to hear sounds they may not have been able to hear before, like music or people’s voices. However not everyone is a good candidate for a cochlear implant – it is important to talk to a doctor or audiologist to see if it’s the right option for you.

    Take care of your ears

    It is very important to take care of your ears and get regular check-ups to make sure that your ears are healthy and working properly. If you notice that you are having trouble hearing, arrange to see a medical expert so that you can get the help you need!

    Related content

    Use these Science Learning Hub resources to discover more:

    • Human hearing – focusing on the function of the ear structure.
    • Hearing sound – find out about the three components required for sound to be heard.
    • Sounds of Aotearoa – use this recorded webinar to explore simple, practical and fun ideas for engaging students in the science of sound.
    • Can you hear that? – this Connected level 4 article provides an overview of sound.

    Browse the wide range of resources under our sound topic for even more.

    We’ve made a partial replication of Building Science Concepts Book 18 Exploring Sound: Using Sound-makers and Musical Instruments. This article and interactive explore the big ideas and science concepts for Physical World levels 1 and 2.

    Sound – lower primary is a collection of resources and notes for educators. You are welcome to copy the collection to your own profile, where you can edit and curate additional resources. The article Creating collections tells you how to get the most out of a collection.

    Activity ideas

    We have lots of activities covering sound and hearing – here are a few to explore these topics further:

    Try the Be Innovative Challenge – designed to encourage students to think about innovation to delivery hearing aids for all. This poster was produced by the Auditory and Vestibular Translational Neuroscience Cluster (The University of Auckland) in March 2023 in support of World Hearing Day 2023.

    Useful links

    Find out about the work of the Eisdell Moore Centre – its mission is to reduce the impact of hearing and balance disabilities. They also provide resources for the public.

    Download these informative posters produced by the Auditory and Vestibular Translational Neuroscience Cluster (The University of Auckland) in March 2023 in support of World Hearing Day 2023:

    Ear care advice from the Health Navigator website.

    Hearing New Zealand | Te Kahui Rongo o Aotearoa works to improve the lives of the 880,000+ people in New Zealand living with hearing loss.

    The National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing supports and advocates for Deaf and hard of hearing New Zealanders.

    Find out more about how a cochlear implant works in this short YouTube video by Cochlear Ltd.


    Thank you to Haruna Suzuki-Kerr, Auditory and Vestibular Translational Neuroscience Cluster, University of Auckland for this article.

      Published 8 March 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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