Head & Neck

The Amazing Middle Ear

written by Collin County ENT

The structure of the ear is incredible: tiny bones and muscles working together to allow you to interpret sounds.

At Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat, we love helping our patients with their ears and understand how important it is for every person to maximize their hearing as much as possible.

Between the Ear Canal and Middle Ear

Your ear canal is the open area you can see, but the ear goes much deeper than what meets the eye.

The eardrum is located between the ear canal and the middle ear. And yes – the eardrum is shaped like a drum! This membrane has a thin, oval shape and acts as the separator between the external auditory canal and the sensitive middle ear area.

When the eardrum is hit by the sound waves, the eardrum sends the vibrations into the middle ear. Keep in mind that this eardrum is sensitive and can be easily broken – which is why it is never recommended to put cotton swabs or other items into the ear canal.

When you move past the eardrum, you reach the middle ear section.

Middle Ear: How it Works

Did you know that the smallest bone located in the human body can be found in the middle ear? The “stapes” (sometimes known as the “stirrup”) is an auditory ossicle that looks similar to a wishbone. This bone is located in the middle ear and is a critical part of the hearing function. Two other tiny bones are also located in the area: the incus and malleus. The bones are so small that all three could fit on your fingertip.

Sound waves meet the eardrum, then the vibrations travel into the middle ear where the stapes is located. This vibration pushes the membrane, resulting in pressure waves that build in the cochlea. Finally, the process creates nerve impulses that are sent to the brain.

The middle ear also is the home of the smallest muscle in the human body. The “stapedius” muscle is attached to the stapes bone, helping to stabilize the bone. This muscle is important for protecting against loud noises by dampening the vibrations when needed.

Hairs in the Middle Ear

Tiny hairs are located deep within the ear, with a whole network to support communication through the vibrations. In fact, you have more than 20,000 hairs in this tiny passageway! These hairs are an integral part of the hearing process. Not only do they move the vibrations along, but they also work to move excess wax out of the ear.

When the vibrations come in, the hairs are stimulated and send an electrical signal of messages down the auditory nerve. When you hear different pitches of sound, it means that different hairs are stimulated. This variation helps the brain distinguish from the unique sounds that are coming in.

If these hairs are lost, then you will also lose your hearing. The hairs can’t regenerate, which means that the hearing loss is permanent. The hair cells degenerate with time, which is why it is common for hearing to diminish with age. Around the age of 70, only about 70% of the hairs are left if you were proactive about protecting your hearing.

Loud sounds can damage these hairs, causing early hearing loss. For example, if your ears are exposed to loud noises (such as machinery or a rock concert), then the hairs can be damaged. So, it’s important to use hearing protection when needed, and avoid excessively noisy environments when possible.

Interesting Facts about Your Ears

As you learn about the way the ear works, you’ll see that it is a marvel of science. Here are a few interesting facts about your ears and how they work:

  • Early Hearing Development: Doctors have found that a fetus develops a sense of hearing around 30 weeks. At this point, the growing baby can not only hear the sounds but also respond to noises in the environment. This pre-birth hearing is why newborns can recognize their mother’s voice.
  • Not Just Hearing: While the ears are essential for hearing, they are also an important part of balance. The inner ear manages sensory input to ensure equilibrium. The inner ear contains fluid that moves to send signals to your brain. That’s why your brain knows when you are leaning back, sitting up, lying down, or moving.
  • Ear Cleaning: It isn’t necessary to clean wax out of the ears. They are designed with a natural process that pushes out excess wax when needed. In fact, a little bit of ear wax is good because it is part of the natural cleaning process inside the ears.
  • Always Listening: Even when you are sleeping, the ears never stop listening to the noises around you. When you go to sleep, the brain ignores the incoming sounds so you don’t wake up to every small noise.
  • Decibels and Hearing: A healthy ear can hear the smallest sound at 0 decibels. Ten times louder is 10 decibels, with the decibel rating increasing from there. A gunshot is at 140 decibels – anything louder than that can result in immediate damage to your hearing.

While many animals use their ears for hearing, some creatures can listen without ears. For example, fish use pressure changes in the water, some insects use antennae, and snakes use jawbones.

Talk to an ENT about Your Hearing

As you can see, the auditory system is a delicate, amazing area of anatomy in the human body! Our team at Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat is passionate about helping you keep your ears healthy and clear for years to come.

If you would like to schedule an appointment with an ENT to discuss your hearing or any other health concerns, then we are here to assist. Our ENT services are available for people of all ages near the Dallas or Denton area. Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat has convenient offices located in both Frisco and Plano, TX.

For more information, request an appointment using our online form, or call our office to talk to a staff member: (972) 596-4005.

Our clients' stories

We find our patients’ experiences the most rewarding part of the job. Without them, we wouldn’t be one of the longest standing ENT practices in the area!

“This was my first time visiting this office. These folks were super friendly!! Starting with the front desk to all the help in the back, the Dr. Littlejohn was very patient and listened to all my concerns. I dealt with 5 people total due to testing and they all were genuinely nice! Loved it, and not to mention quick service. Great customer service, I’ll be sure to refer family and friends! ”

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“I have used Collin Co. ENT and Dr. Kenny Carter for over 3 years, primarily for ear problems. The staff has been consistently helpful and friendly to me. When I have had problems needing immediate attention and explained the need, have been able to get an appointment within a reasonable time to address the problem. I recommend Dr. Carter and his staff.”

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“Dr. Matheny performed 2 surgeries on my wife, both were successful with great results. He is not only a great surgeon, but a great person. It was a pleasure working with him. One of the best doctors we have ever seen in our lives.”

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