National Health Education Week is celebrated during the 3rd week in October (this year it will be celebrated from October 16th – 20th). It focuses on health education and major public health issues. We thought we’d take advantage of the build-up to educate our readers on how healthy ears work and how to protect them. It’s easy to take the ears for granted because they are so convenient; they hold up glasses and for some they are a great place for earrings. However, the most important feature of the ears is their role in balance and as one of the five senses.
The ear is a complex organ.
While we only see one part of the ear, the outer ear, there are highly complex tissues, bones and organs deep inside the ear that we cannot see. The ear is actually a complex organ made up of the outer, middle and inner ear. The three parts of the ear work in concert to capture sound waves, convert them into nerve impulses and send them to the brain where they are translated into sound. Another system within the inner ear helps people keep their balance.
The Outer Ear: This is the part of the ear that you see on the sides of your head. The outer ear is made up of cartilage covered with skin. Its job is to capture sound waves from the surrounding environment and direct them into the ear canal which is considered part of the outer ear. Once sounds are in the ear canal they hit the ear drum – a very thin tissue, or membrane, that vibrates when sounds hit it. The ear drum is located between the outer ear and the middle ear.
The Middle Ear: This part of the ear includes the ear drum and a small area filled with air that contains three tiny bones. These bones connect the ear drum to the inner ear. The three tiny bones are called the hammer (attached to the eardrum), the anvil and the stirrup. The bones look exactly like their names. Once sound has reached the ear drum and causes it to vibrate, the sound is then amplified by the bones and sent to the oval window, a thin tissue, or membrane, that is located at the opening of the inner ear.
The middle ear also contains the Eustachian tube that runs from the middle ear to the back of the nose. This tube performs several very important roles in the ear, nose, and throat system.
- It brings outside air to the middle ear.
- It protects the ear drum by ensuring that equal pressure exists on either side. When a person swallows the tube opens, equalizing pressure on either side of the drum. It also helps to move any fluid buildup in the middle ear. This is the function that you can experience while flying in an airplane. If your ears feel blocked from changing air pressure and you swallow, your ears feel better. That is because you have equalized the pressure on either side of the eardrum. When you have a cold and the Eustachian tube becomes blocked it can lead to ear infections or ear pain.
The Inner Ear: The inner ear holds two organs;
- The hearing organ called the cochlea
- The balance organ called the vestibular system
The cochlea is filled with fluid and contains the hearing organ that has tens of thousands of cells that look like very tiny hairs. When sound enters the inner ear the fluid and the hair-like cells begin to vibrate. These vibrations are converted into nerve impulses that are sent to the brain where they are read and understood as different sounds.
The tiny hairs inside the cochlea need to be protected. Sudden noises or loud, sustained noises can damage the hair cells. Unfortunately, if these cells are damaged they do not regrow. That is how sustained exposure to loud music, machinery or events can cause permanent hearing damage or ringing in the ears.
The vestibular, or balance, system is actually two small sacs filled with fluid and three tubes filled with fluid. Miraculously, the job of these sacs and tubes is to continually gather information about the head – where it is positioned and how it is moving. This information is sent to the brain where it uses the information to maintain balance.
- The two sacs detect when the head is moving up and down or back and forth
- The canals detect when the head is moving in a circular fashion and rotating
If the canals are affected by a cold or upper respiratory function they can’t work properly, resulting in dizziness or a sense that the room is spinning.
Protect your ears
By now you can see the complexity of the ears and the sensitivity of the tiny bones, tissues and organs within that create the sense of hearing and balance. The ears deserve to be protected so that they can work properly for many years. You can protect your hearing in the following ways:
Know which noises can cause damage (those at or above 85 decibels), for example;
- Motorcycles: 95 decibels
- Sirens: 120 decibels
- Firecrackers and firearms: 150 decibels
- Amplified rock music heart at 4 to 6 feet away: 120 decibels
- Wear earplugs or other protective devices when involved in a loud activity (activity-specific earplugs and earmuffs are available at hardware and sporting goods stores)
- If you can’t reduce the noise or protect yourself from it, move away from it
- Be alert to hazardous noises in the environment
- Protect the ears of children who are too young to protect their own
- Make family, friends, and colleagues aware of the hazards of noise
Have your hearing tested if you think you might have hearing loss. Have your hearing checked by an audiologist who can detect the level of hearing loss and suggest hearing aids that may improve your hearing.