One of the most interesting aspects of the anatomy of the ear is that some of the tiniest parts have the biggest jobs. Today we are going to look at the tiny hair cells in the inner ear and how too much damage from noise can lead to noise-induced hearing loss.

The cochlea is the spiral shaped part of the inner ear – often people describe it as looking like a snail. The cochlea is the final stop for sound where it is turned into neural signals that the auditory nerve transports to the brain. Inside the cochlea are tiny hair cells whose job it is to turn sound into a signal. According to the CDC, the average person is born with 16,000 hair cells.

As sound passes through the auditory system, the tiny hair cells vibrate turning the sound into electric signals. Loud sounds can cause the cells to bend. Many of us have experienced temporary hearing difficulty after exposure to a loud noise source such as a concert, sporting event, power tool or fire cracker. If given enough time to recover away from noise, the hair cells can straighten and our hearing returns.

What happens when the hair cells have repeated exposure to loud noises? Too much loud noise and the hair cells become damaged and can die. These hair cells cannot be regrown, so eventually noise-induced hearing loss is the result. Luckily, hearing or ear protection is a great way to protect these tiny hair cells. If you are heading out to a concert or a game, pack ear plugs. Make sure you are aware of your noise exposure at work, and when hearing protection is issued wear at all times. Do you use headphones or ear buds? Make sure to keep the volume low and give your ears listening breaks.

Finally, make hearing screening part of your health routine. This is a great way to establish a baseline and to catch noise-induced hearing loss early to minimize the impact.