Beltone Blog

The Difference Between Sensorineural and Conductive Hearing Loss

The human ear is made up of many different parts, and just like with any piece of fine machinery, if one or more of these parts stops working, it can lead to big problems.

Posted 09-20-2015 by John Cariola, Au.D.

The parts of the ear fit neatly into four general areas :

  1. The outer ear
  2. The middle ear
  3. The inner ear
  4. The central auditory pathways

As sound waves enter the outer ear, they can be interrupted at any point on their way to the brain. This results in different types of hearing loss, depending on where the sound waves are interrupted, and why. In other words, each type of hearing loss relates to specific parts of the ear.
The two main types of hearing loss are sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss. Each of these types of hearing loss can exist on their own (more common), or exist concurrently (less common). When sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss occur at the same time, this is called mixed hearing loss.

These three types of hearing loss should not be confused with temporary hearing loss, which generally clears up on its own within a couple of weeks.

The type of hearing loss you are experiencing will dictate the type of treatment you will require moving forward. It’s not always as complicated or hopeless as it might seem! To figure out the type of hearing loss you or a loved one is experiencing, a better understanding of the two most common types will help. Let’s start by looking at the more common of the two: sensorineural hearing loss.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

90% of the aging population experiencing hearing loss have age-related sensorineural hearing loss. But what does this mean, exactly?
Also known as nerve-related hearing loss, as the name suggests, sensorineural hearing loss refers to hearing loss that is the result of nerve damage. It takes place in the inner ear (the cochlea), or anywhere along the nerve pathways that connect the inner ear to the brain. In other words, your outer and middle ear are functioning properly, but some sounds aren’t being interpreted properly and may not be reaching the brain at all.

If you’re having trouble hearing soft or faint sounds, especially in noisy crowds, and are above the age of 55, your hearing loss is most likely sensorineural. You may feel like you’re picking up some sounds around you, but it’s not all crystal clear.
There are several causes of sensorineural hearing loss:

  • Aging
  • Symptoms of illness or disease
  • Side effects of medication
  • Loud noises (frequent exposure)
  • Head trauma (mild or severe)
  • Genetics
This is a very broad list of things that can cause sensorineural hearing loss. A hearing health professional will be able to narrow things down. They might look into Ménière’s disease as a possible cause. Ménière’s disease is a disorder specific to the inner ear. It occurs when there is a buildup of fluid in the inner ear, and typically comes with additional symptoms such as dizziness, loss of balance, vertigo and nausea.
In many cases, ranging from mild to severe, sensorineural hearing loss can be alleviated by hearing aids that are becoming more convenient and comfortable than ever. However, if the damage is too severe, permanent hearing loss may result in rare cases.

While preventing this type of hearing loss altogether as you age is nearly impossible, there are some things you can do now to protect your hearing and slow down the loss. If you suspect you might be experiencing the early stages of sensorineural hearing loss, check out our tips for
preserving good hearing health


Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss affects the opposite end of the hearing highway: the outer ear. It happens when sound waves are not traveling efficiently from the outside world through to the outer or middle ear.

The trouble can occur anywhere in the outer ear, the ear canal or the middle ear. Simply put, the sound signals hit a roadblock and have trouble making it to the nerve center where they are processed by the brain.

Conductive hearing loss is, for the most part, treatable, and therefore, temporary. In many cases, something is physically blocking (plugging) the ear canal, which prevents you from hearing well. As with sensorineural hearing loss, there are many causes of conductive hearing loss:
  • Ear infections and head colds
  • Ear wax and other fluid buildups
  • Presence of a foreign objects
  • Perforated eardrum
  • Allergies
  • Tumors
For some individuals, a genetic condition called otosclerosis could be to blame. Otosclerosis refers to abnormal bone development in the middle ear. The bones may be wrapped around each other, or otherwise not fully formed. Otosclerosis usually doesn’t become an issue until adulthood, and is often operable.

What To Do Next

If you suspect you are experiencing a hearing loss of any kind, visit a Beltone hearing health professional to get your ears checked and find out what you do can do to improve your hearing health today. Addressing your hearing loss concerns starts with reaching out to someone who can help.