Researcher studying hearing loss.

You’ve just left a concert with your ears humming and stuffy. Or you enjoyed a night of fireworks with the grandkids. Now you can barely hear their pleas for ice cream before you take them home.

These are just a couple examples of times when you know immediately you’ve done damage to your hearing. There are other time when the damage is more subtle. They happen over time and go unnoticed as they compound into serious hearing problems.

What happens in those moments after the damage occurs? Could early treatment prevent the extent of the damage? Let’s take a look at what researchers have found about early treatment of hearing loss.

The Research

One of the most recent studies on hearing loss was performed at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. For the first time, they used an optical laser normally used to map out the retina to take a more in-depth look at what happens in the ear after a damaging event.

As they observed the non-human test subject, the damaging sound entered the ear, funneling down into the inner ear where hearing takes place.

They watched as the sound waves, much like ocean waves, crashed repeatedly onto delicate microscopic hair cells that pick up sound for the brain. As these waves moved across the hair cells, the cells began to fray, bend, crack. In some cases, they were completely obliterated.

Unlike other cells in your body, these cells don’t heal or grow back.

All of this, they expected to see. But what came next stunned researchers who’ve been studying how we hear for years.

Once the sound had stopped assaulting the tiny hairs that you must have in order to hear sound, potassium ions began to build up in the ear. Potassium is an essential nutrient that helps cells balance their fluid levels and remove toxins.

As the potassium accumulated, it drew fluid into the inner ear from surrounding cells, causing the inner ear to swell. Swelling, or inflammation, is an immune response that the body uses to “flush out” an invader.

In this case, the invader wasn’t something that could be flushed out like germs can.

This swelling only made matters worse, damaging the nerve synapses that carry the message picked up by the hair cells to the brain. This damage is likely what makes it so hard for people with hearing loss to hear someone close to them when there is background noise.

Researchers believe that if early intervention were to take place within minutes or hours of the event, they could reduce the swelling and the level of hearing loss.

Early Treatment Key to Slowing Hearing Loss Progression

This study demonstrates how important early intervention is when it comes to treating hearing loss. It’s not only the minutes and hours without intervention that make the hearing loss worse. It’s the years that many people wait before getting a hearing test or considering hearing aids.

What Happens When You Delay Treatment

Progressing hearing loss has a cascade effect on your overall health, not just your hearing. Untreated hearing loss has also been shown to contribute to the following:

  1. The brain gets overworked. It’s trying so hard to figure out what people are saying.
  2. You become tired in social situations and may choose to spend less time with friends, family and activities you love.
  3. You’re likely to become lonely, frustrated, anxious and depressed.
  4. This overworking of the brain takes resources from other parts of the brain, affecting memory and other thinking skills. It becomes harder to learn new things or understand basic instructions making it more difficult to be active.
  5. At the same time, the hearing center in your brain slowly starts to shut down. As it does, the hearing loss progression speeds up. MRI scans will actually show the brain shrinking in size by this time.
  6. Understanding what words and sounds mean is tied to this part of the brain, so losing your communication ability is highly possible.
  7. As this part of your brain shuts down, the atrophy spreads to other parts of the brain, which can lead to dementia and general health decline.

It can take a while for people realize they need hearing aids. By this time, the hearing loss is moderate to profound. Once they get hearing aids, they need to re-learn some of the brain functions they’ve lost.

Re-training your brain is not an easy task and can be very frustrating. While you may not be able to get your hearing back completely, hearing aids will help undo some of the other damage.

Getting help early is key to saving your hearing and stopping the waterfall of events. You’re not too young to get a hearing test and talk to a hearing specialist about solutions.