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What Is a Hearing Impairment?

Hearing aids are commonly used as part of the treatment for hearing impairment.
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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 27 July 2014
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Hearing impairment is the partial or total loss of the ability to hear in one or both ears, caused by damage to or deformity of one or more parts of the ear. An individual may have hearing impairment from birth or may develop the condition at any point during his life. The condition may be based in the outer, middle, or inner ear. Depending on the cause of one’s impairment and the area in which it is based, the condition may be treatable with medication, surgery, or hearing aids.

The term hearing impairment can refer to both the partial and total loss of the ability to hear in one or both ears. In some cases, impairment arises after one or more structures of the ear has been damaged. Many factors can cause ear damage. Common causes include infections, prolonged exposure to very loud noises, adverse reaction to medication, the puncture of an ear part such as the eardrum, and head injuries. Impairment which occurs due to ear damage sustained during the course of an individual’s life is called acquired hearing loss.

In other cases, hearing impairment occurs because one or more parts of the ear is deformed or has never functioned properly. For instance, an infant may have a genetic condition which causes him to be born with a non-functioning auditory nerve. Impairment which exists from birth is called congenital hearing loss.

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It is possible for the cause of one’s hearing impairment to be based in the outer, middle, or inner ear. The outer and middle ear consists of structures which draw sound into the inner ear. Impairment due to damage or deformity of one of these structures is known as conductive hearing loss. Damage or deformity of the inner ear, which transmits sound from the outer and middle ear to the brain, is known as sensorineural hearing loss. Impairment which is both conductive and sensorineural is known as mixed hearing loss.

Some forms of hearing impairment are partially or fully treatable. Impairment which is caused by fluid buildup, for instance, may be treated with drainage, while impairment caused by an injury such as a punctured eardrum may gradually diminish as the injury heals. Those with permanent impairment may be able to achieve partially or fully restored hearing with hearing aids or removable devices worn in the outer ear to amplify sounds. Individuals with severe impairments may benefit from cochlear implants, permanent devices embedded in the inner ear to transmit sound to the auditory nerve. Those with untreatable impairment often choose to communicate by using sign language and reading lips.

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