An illustration of the human ear's anatomy with labels

The ear is a fascinating and complicated structure. How does it work?

Hearing starts with the external ear. The ear is shaped specifically to collect sound waves in the environment. Sound waves travel down the ear canal and vibrate the ear drum. The motion of the ear drum pushes three tiny bones back and forth. These tiny bones are called the malleus, incus, and stapes (also known as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup)

They also happen to be the smallest bones in the entire human body! Those tiny bones push into a snail-shaped structure called the cochlea. The cochlea is full of fluid which moves around like ocean waves. The movement of fluid triggers tiny hair cells within the structure to send an electrical signal up to the brain.

Different hair cells are triggered depending on the pitch of the sound being heard. The brain interprets these electrical signals as sound.


Where does hearing loss play a role in this process?

Sound waves can be blocked or dampened by certain issues. For example: ear wax, a hole in the ear drum, or a disconnect between the three tiny bones can all affect the hearing process. Hair cells in the cochlea can become worn down over time due to age, genetics, and noise exposure. This damage can occur at certain pitches, or across the whole range of pitches. When hair cells become damaged, louder sounds are needed to trigger a response.