How the ear works
There are 3 primary sections of the ear:
−The outer ear: the pinna and the ear canal
−The middle ear: the eardrum and 3 tiny bones (which are called anvil, hammer, and stirrup)
−The inner ear: cochlea, semicircular canals, and auditory nerves
Hearing starts when sound waves enter the outer ear and strike the eardrum and the 3 tiny bones within the middle ear. Depending on the intensity of the waves, the bones will vibrate. These vibrations are then transferred through the fluids within the cochlea and cause its inner hair cells to move. These hair cells will then transform the pressure waves into chemical signals, which will be sent to the brain by the auditory nerves afterwards.
Types of ear injuries
High or low altitudes (barotrauma)
In normal condition, the air pressure in one’s middle ear keeps balance with the air pressure in the environment outside the ear. However, sudden and significant changes in the atmospheric pressure can cause the air to be trapped inside or be pushed outside of the middle ear. At this point, the eardrum can be ruptured which later might lead to partial hearing loss. Barotrauma injury is most likely to happen to those who take up sports with extreme changes in pressure such as scuba diving, base jumping, skydiving, wrestling or during air traveling.
Loud noises (acoustic trauma or noise-induced hearing loss)
Exposure to extremely loud noise or loud noise over a long period of time can damage the eardrum in the middle ear and the tiny hair cells in the cochlea. Loud, repeated sounds coming from lawn mowers, farm tools, factories, bands, events or vehicle engines can worsen one’s condition of hearing. Extremely loud sounds coming from an explosion, a gunshot or a firecracker can lead to immediate and permanent hearing loss.
A direct blow to the ear or head due to accidents, injuries or fights can create a pressure that is significant enough to tear the eardrum and dislocate the tiny bones (ossicles). It is common for wrestlers and boxers to develop a condition called cauliflower ear which is when a forceful hit to the outer ear damages its shape and creates blood clots which cut off blood circulation to the cartilages of the outer ear.
Ear infections (especially middle ear infections such as otitis media) are common among infants and children. If not treated properly, the pus and fluid which are built up over time can cause the eardrum to burst. Experts suggest parents to avoid letting their children lying down while being bottle-fed as well as to breastfeed them as long as possible to reduce their risk of having ear infection.
Cuts and scratches
It’s important to treat cuts and scratches of the ear carefully and attentively. Even if the cuts are external, the untreated bleeding can result in infection in inner parts of the ear.
Insertion of objects such as cotton swabs, straws, pencils or even fingernails can scratch the ear canals and damage the eardrum. As children have smaller ear canals, the damage can be much more severe.
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Review Date: April 22, 2017 | Last Modified: March 26, 2019