How do we hear?
Have you ever wondered how your hearing works? If we know how our ears and brain work together to hear, we can better understand how to look after our hearing. For everyone curious, we’ve broken the complicated hearing system down into five simple steps.
How our hearing works
Step 1: Sound is made of sound waves - these sound waves reach the outer ear first, and then travel through the ear canal to the ear drum.
Step 2: The sound waves hit the ear drum, causing it to vibrate. These vibrations are passed on to the middle ear through three tiny bones behind the ear drum.
Step 3: The middle ear is responsible for amplifying sound waves before they move to the cochlea in the inner ear. The cochlea is a spiral-shaped bone and contains hair cells that react to sounds based on their frequency.
Step 4: The hair cells in the cochlea move and create electrical energy.
The hair cells are very fragile and loud noises can damage or destroy them. This is irreversible and there is currently no way to repair them.
Step 5: The electrical signals travel to the hearing centre of the brain - the auditory cortex. The brain decodes the electrical signals and turns them into meaningful sounds.
We hope this has given you a better understanding of your hearing and how it works.
For more information on how to protect your hearing at home, download eargym.
What can we hear?
We all know that dogs have incredible hearing - four times better than humans, in fact. But how well can humans hear in the first place?
To answer this question, we need to look at the hearing range of the human ear. By ‘hearing range’ we mean the different pitches and levels of loudness humans can listen to comfortably. Pitch is measured in hertz (Hz) and loudness in decibels (dB).
What is the hearing range of humans?
The average hearing range begins at 20 Hz and ends at 20,000 Hz. However, our hearing is most responsive to sounds between 2,000-5,000 Hz. Age, occupation and gender can all influence the range of sounds which we can hear comfortably.
Did you know?
Our hearing sensitivity at high frequencies decreases by 12 kHz as we age.
The hearing range of the human ear:
The average person can hear noises beginning at 0dB and up to 165dB. However, anything above 85dB is considered potentially dangerous, and prolonged exposure to loud noises can damage the hair cells.
To give you an idea of noise levels in decibels, here are some examples:
0 dB - Silence
40 dB - Rain
60 dB - A conversation
85 dB - City traffic
90 dB - A busy and noisy restaurant
110 dB - A crying infant
125 dB - A siren
145 dB - Fireworks
We discuss noise levels more in depth in our ‘how loud is too loud’ blog.
What about the hearing range of people with hearing loss?
People with hearing loss will have a different hearing range. Typically, the higher pitches are most likely to be affected which can make birdsong and certain intonations in speech difficult to hear.
To find out what your specific hearing range is, head to our ear age test. If you’re worried about your hearing, seek advice from a professional.
Need help finding a professional? We have a useful guide for you.
Understanding hearing tests
The most accurate and effective way to learn more about your hearing is to have a hearing test.
We know that having a hearing test can be a little daunting, so here’s a guide to outline what you can expect from a hearing test.
What is a hearing test?
A hearing test is an assessment carried out by an audiologist to determine your ability to hear different sounds.
Why is a hearing test carried out?
A hearing test is done to identify whether there any problems, such as damage to the hair cells, that are affecting your hearing.
When to get a hearing test?
You’ve probably been told you should get a hearing test if you are experiencing hearing loss or are worried about your hearing.
Along with the RNID, we encourage adults between the ages of 18 and 40 to have their ears checked at least every 3 years. An audiologist will be able to detect any changes to your hearing that you may not have noticed. We also recommend that if you are aged 60 and above, have hearing loss in the family, or get repeated ear infections, that you get your ears checked at least once every year.
How are hearing tests done?
During a hearing test you will sit in a soundproof room, wearing a pair of headphones. The audiologist will play sounds through the headphones and you are required to press a button when you can hear the sounds.
Want more information? Check out our guidance on what happens in a hearing test.
What should I expect from a hearing test?
A hearing test will typically last 15 minutes. Before taking your test, the audiologist will ask you a series of questions to help them understand more about your overall hearing health.
Are hearing tests free?
Hearing tests are typically free. Various healthcare providers offer patients free examinations, however, you may be required to pay for treatment, such as hearing aids. We advise you to check whether there are any costs before booking a hearing test.
If you haven’t already, you can take our quick ear age test to find out your hearing age.
Hearing aids are a great bit of technology that will help reduce the impacts of hearing loss on your life. They won’t fix your hearing, or make it perfect, but they will work to make sounds clearer and louder.
There are many people who could benefit from hearing aids, but recent research indicates there’s only a 40% uptake of hearing aids from people who would benefit from them.
To help you determine whether you could benefit from hearing aids, we’ve put together this quick, handy guide.
How do hearing aids work?
To understand how hearing aids work, first read ‘how do we hear?’
A hearing aid works by channelling sound waves through a microphone. A processing chip then analyses the sound waves and adjusts them to a person’s specific needs. The processed sounds are sent to an amplifier, which are passed on to a speaker. This speaker then transmits the sound to the inner ear. The cochlea, which is found in the inner ear, then transforms the sound waves into electrical signals, which are processed by your brain.
What hearing loss requires a hearing aid?
After you’ve had a hearing test, your audiologist will evaluate and determine the degree of your hearing loss. If your hearing falls in the range of 21-70dB (mild to moderate hearing loss,) a hearing aid is likely to be very effective at restoring your hearing ability.
The cost of hearing aids
Are hearing aids free?
In the UK, you could be eligible for a free hearing aid if you are referred to a hearing assessment with an NHS service, and if that service deems a hearing aid necessary.
Some people, with early stages of hearing loss, will still benefit from hearing aids, however, they may not qualify for hearing aids on the NHS. If you’re unable to get hearing aids on the NHS, this by no way means you wouldn’t benefit from wearing them. There are other, affordable options available. For example, there are more and more hearing aids becoming available over the counter.
Are hearing aids free for pensioners?
This all depends on whether you go via the NHS or via private healthcare for your hearing aids. The NHS can provide free hearing aids to patients who have been referred to NHS audiologists via a GP.
Are hearing aids free in Scotland?
As mentioned above, this depends on whether you opt for NHS services or private healthcare.
Are hearing aids waterproof?
Hearing aids are water-resistant, meaning they can get wet. They are designed to withstand daily life, so sweat or rain won’t affect their function.
Do you currently wear a hearing aid? Do you want to improve your hearing? Download the eargym app and complete activities that will help boost your hearing abilities.
Hearing and age
Although it is common to experience hearing loss as we age, it can occur at any stage throughout life. This is why it’s vital you look after your hearing now. And if you do experience hearing difficulties, it’s important you know what to do.
Hearing problems in children
Hearing problems in children can be difficult to identify, but they can have an impact on their ability to develop speech, language and social skills.
Signs your children may be experiencing hearing difficulties:
Difficulty concentrating or inattentiveness
Not responding to their name
Speaking loudly and listening to things at a high volume
Struggling with word pronunciation
Experiencing a change in behaviour, or a change in their progress at school
Hearing problems in children are incredibly unique and highly variable. For some children, they may have difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds but not low-pitched sounds, or vice versa. If a child is experiencing hearing difficulties, hearing aids are important as they are made to treat your individual hearing loss.
If your child is displaying any of these symptoms, then speak to a healthcare professional. They will be able to refer your child for a hearing test.
What are common hearing problems in children?
According to NHS England, hearing loss affects around 45,000 to 50,000 children. Additionally, an estimated 840 babies are born with a hearing impairment every year.
The most common form of hearing loss in children is known as ‘conductive hearing loss’. This is when sounds are unable to travel from your outer ear to your inner ear, due to obstruction, such as fluid from an ear infection. Conductive hearing loss can be caused by a perforated ear drum or a disorder of the hearing bones.
Other common hearing problems in children include:
Otitis media - an infection of the middle ear that causes inflammation and build up of fluid behind the ear drum. The fluid will prevent the vibrations from the middle ear being passed on to the inner ear. This can cause mild or moderate hearing loss.
Acquired hearing loss - hearing loss caused by disease, condition or injury. Meningitis, measles and chickenpox are known to occasionally cause hearing problems in children.