We all know that our ears are responsible for hearing. However, you may have noticed that even when you fully block their ears, you can still hear some sound, although it’s softer and more muffled. Why can you hear when your ears are blocked? Do the ear canals need to be open to hear? What happens if the ears are blocked?

How do we hear?

Our ears are designed for hearing. Our outer ears are shaped to funnel sound down the ear canal, onto the eardrum, along the middle ear bones, and then into the cochlea where it’s converted into electrical signals which transmit to the brain. This is the primary route that sound takes to get to the brain. If the ear canal is blocked, it will severely impact how well you hear. However, if you have a normal functioning cochlea, you will still be able to hear something even with the tightest and thickest blockage.

Bone Conduction

How does this work? Sound doesn’t only travel down the ear canal for hearing. Some sound is also transmitted through the skull bone directly to the cochlea. These tiny vibrations won’t come through loud and clear, but if someone has normal inner ear hearing, they will still be able to hear something even when both ears are blocked. This is also how we hear our own voices, which are heard directly through the jaw and skull by the inner ear.

Bone Conduction Devices

Recently we’ve seen an increase in things like bone conduction headphones, which sit on the mastoid bone behind the ear to listen to music without blocking the ear. Some people find these more comfortable than traditional headphones. However, bone conduction is most useful when someone has a conductive hearing loss. If their outer or middle ears are not able to transport the sound to the inner ear effectively, because of a blockage, perforation, or dislocation that cannot be treated, bone conduction devices such as a bone-anchored hearing aid can be used to send sound through the skull to the cochlear by using vibrations. If the cochlea has normal hearing, a bone conduction device can allow the person to hear almost as normal, even if they have a blocked ear canal or other long-term middle ear problem.

Open Ears

While you can still hear something when the ear canals are blocked, your hearing will still be significantly impaired. Bone conduction devices might sound good, but they aren’t a solution for everyone, and also have their limitations. If you’ve been diagnosed with a conductive hearing loss, you must have your ears checked out by an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist to discuss all options and explore whether there might be a procedure or treatment that can help you. Having open, healthy, and functioning ears will always lead to the best possible hearing, but if this isn’t an option, there are devices that can help.

If you have any questions about blocked ears, conductive hearing loss, or bone conduction devices, contact us, or comment below.