Hearing loss is no fun. It’s a scary prospect looming on many of our horizons. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion people between the ages of 12 and 35 are at risk of future hearing loss, and 15% of American adults (37.5 million) report some kind of hearing loss.
With such a massive influence, you’d think perhaps we’d figured out a way to reverse or cure this issue. Well we’ll be blunt, there’s no cure for hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss (by far the most common type of hearing loss) is permanent. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be treated, however.
How to treat hearing loss
There are two types of hearing loss: conductive and sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss can generally be cured with the right procedure or medication. This can include a bone replacement surgery to repair a damaged ossicle, or a course of antibiotics to reduce swelling in the ear canal.
You can learn more about conductive hearing loss causes and treatments in our dedicated article. Now, the real culprit of irreversible hearing loss is the other type of hearing loss: sensorineural.
Where conductive hearing loss is more related to physical blockages between incoming sound and the interior of your ear, sensorineural hearing loss is more related to the inner workings of the ear. If there is a problem in this system, this kind of hearing loss is irreversible.
The inner ear comprises thousands upon thousands of hair cells, and when enough of these hair cells die, noticeable hearing loss starts to take hold. And when a hair cell does die, it cannot be revived. But we mentioned before that while it isn’t curable, it’s at least treatable. So let’s look at how.
Treating sensorineural hearing loss
Almost everyone knows what a hearing aid looks like, and a general idea of what it does, but a lot of people would be surprised at how complex these tiny devices really are.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a hearing aid is a simple receiver, amplifier, and speaker that just makes things louder. That, however, would be classified as a personal sound amplification product (PSAP), which is a less powerful device intended for people who just need a small boost in their hearing, rather than someone undergoing hearing loss.
An actual hearing aid is a lot more complex, as it can be tailor-made to enhance the specific sounds that the wearer is unable to hear. While hearing aids can be more expensive, their quality when compared to a PSAP cannot be overstated.
This level of quality is why hearing aids are the most common form of treatment for sensorineural hearing loss – short of a nonexistent magical cure for hearing loss, there is no better option than a hearing aid.
A cochlear implant is the step above a hearing aid. This procedure/device is generally given to sufferers of hearing loss who don’t gain much assistance from a hearing aid. Here’s how it works:
A device similar to a hearing aid receives the sound, and sends it to a headpiece, attached to the skull with a magnet. The headpiece then sends the sound, in the form of electricity via an implanted wire, through the cochlea (which houses all those now-underpowered hair cells.) The wire connects to the electrode that transports that sensation to the brain to be experienced as sound.
As far as cures for hearing loss go, this is as close as we’ve come. It’s less of a cure and more of an augmentation, and is also reserved mainly for people with the highest level of hearing loss – profound hearing loss.
How to restore hearing loss naturally
We’ll only touch on this briefly, as we don’t want to give the impression that there are natural ways to restore hearing. However, there are some lifestyle changes that you can undergo to maintain the hearing you do have.
While they might sound the same, “improving your hearing” and “reversing hearing loss” are slightly different. Like we said earlier, reversing your hearing loss is impossible. Improving the hearing you have, however, is entirely possible.
Exercise, diet, and appropriate consumption of sound are all great methods of taking care of your ears and hearing, and can allow the now-healthier remaining hair cells in your ear to pick up more sound.
There is one form of hearing loss that can be completely cured, however. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) can occur without warning in anyone, and is exactly what it sounds like. An individual can wake up with an unprecedented hearing loss, which can usually be cured in the space of 48 hours with appropriate steroid treatments. Time is of the utmost importance when it comes to SSHL, so if you experience, see a hearing specialist ASAP.
The future of hearing loss reversal
While we have no solid cures or reversal techniques yet, science is always advancing. Who knows what the next five or ten years may bring in terms of hearing loss reversal. There are already some promising fields that might yield some results soon. Let’s look at a few.
Stem cell therapy
“Stem cell” is the science buzzword of the decade (followed closely by “nanotechnology” and any phrase including the word “quantum.”) Depending on how overexposed you may feel to this in recent years, it may have lost any significant meaning.
Despite modern day over-indulgence of the term, stem cell research actually goes back to 1981. If you don’t know what stem cells are, fair enough. It’s somewhat turned into a catch-all pop culture word, that explains Marvel hero origin stories or how Pokémon would work in real life.
To put it simply, picture this: a 10 year old child is looking at what careers interest her. She could take paths that could lead to becoming a builder, poet, or banker. Now instead of a child, picture a tiny cell, and instead of builders, poets, and bankers, think of bone cells, brain cells, and heart cells.
A stem cell is a starting block that can transform into any of the more specific types of cells. As you may be able to surmise, having a cell that can transform into a healthy hearing hair cell would be a massive step in restoring hearing, so watch this space.
Viruses aren’t all bad. Some scientists have resorted to genetically modifying viruses to target and potentially correct defective hair cells. There haven’t been huge leaps in this field when it comes to hearing loss, but it’s certainly still worth keeping an eye on.
For genetically-imposed hearing loss, which is a large chunk of sensorineural hearing loss, gene therapy is a promising prospect. If a certain gene is causing hearing loss, then the goal of gene therapy would be to replace or deactivate that gene.
The science behind this one is long and complicated, but you should know that gene therapy has already helped restore hearing in test mice.
These potential cure techniques are exciting, but are mostly theories and tests at this point. If you think or know that you’re undergoing hearing loss, your best course of action will most likely be a hearing aid.
(Note: for more information you may also be interested in the Hearing Restoration Project)