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Hearing Impaired and Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can affect your everyday life. It can affect areas like work and relationships. And yet, it is one of the most common medical conditions presented to physicians. Globally, at least 10% of the population struggles with hearing loss and as of 2004, 124 million people had a moderate to severe disability of hearing loss. Of those 124 million people, 65 million experienced hearing loss in childhood.

Technically speaking, hearing loss occurs when any part of the ear is not working properly. Symptoms of hearing loss can include certain sounds seeming too loud, difficulty following a conversation with 2 or more people, difficulty hearing in noisy areas, trouble distinguishing high pitched sounds (including "s" and "th"), and hearing voices as mumbled or slurred. Additional symptoms can be a feeling of dizziness or off-balance, pressure in your ears, and a ringing sound in your ears.

There are two main types of hearing loss. The first, Conductive Hearing Loss is a mechanical problem in the outer or middle ear. This can be caused by malformation of the ear since birth, fluid in the middle ear from colds, allergies, poor eustachian tube function, infection, and otosclerosis which is a genetic malformation of the stapes (bones) in your middle ear.

Depending on the cause of your hearing loss, treatments will vary. For malformations since birth, which can include absence of an ear canal, failure of an ear canal to open, or a dysfunction of the middle ear structures, surgical correction can be the best solution. Surgery can include correction of the ear structure and surgical implants that amplify sounds. For hearing loss caused by viruses, most physicians will treat this with antibiotic, anti-fungual medications, and in cases of chronic fluid, pressure equalizing tubes.

A second type of hearing loss is Sensorineural (SNHL) which is caused by problems in the inner ear also known as nerve related hearing loss. Typically, this type of hearing loss is not reversible, and can often be a result from a childhood infection like measles, mumps, scarlet fever, and meningitis.

SNHL can be caused by exposure to loud noise, head trauma, virus or disease, autoimmune diseases, genetic predisposition, aging, malformation of the inner ear, and Meniere's disease.

Treatment varies for this type of hearing loss. For those exposed to loud noise over time, their hearing loss may respond to medical therapy with corticosteroids to reduce cochlear hair swelling and inflammation and may improve healing of the inner ear structures.

Trauma to the ear which can include something as simple as an airplane descent and change in pressure can cause the fluid compartment of the inner ear to rupture. This can be toxic to the inner ear and doctors have had variable success with emergency surgery.

An auto-immune disease can cause gradual hearing loss in both ears as the body misdirects its defenses against the inner ear structures. This condition can be managed by long-term corticosteroid medication.

Lastly, those with Meniere's disease will experience fluctuating hearing loss along with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and possible vertigo. This can be treated with a low sodium diet, diuretics, and corticosteroids.

Regardless of what kind of hearing loss you or your loved one are experiencing, building new relationships can be challenging. Most experts agree that when starting a new relationship there are some definite steps that can help you be successful. First, be open about your hearing loss as early as possible. Letting your new friend or partner know about your hearing loss upfront can go a long way in helping you both communicate well as you get to know each other. Don't be shy about asking for clarification. It's often better to clarify than assume you heard the question correctly. And lastly, take control of where your meet. While background noise can be a challenge, letting your new friend know that quieter is better can help you both relax and enjoy a growing friendship.

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