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The Ear and how it Works

A quick tour of the bits that make up the human ear and how they all work together to produce the miracle that is hearing

The ear has three parts:

The Ear and how it Works

The ear - outer - middle - inner

 
  • The outer ear

How does it look?

It's the flap on the side of your head together with the ear canal which is the bit you might be able to get your pinkie into but you shouldn't really because as your Mother will no doubt have correctly told you nothing smaller than your elbow should be put in your ear canal. It's the bit we can all see and its made up of skin and cartelage. The flappy bit (or pinna) has clever folds which help to catch the sound waves and direct them into the canal. The canal starts out as skin covering cartilage and then becomes skin covering bone. About an inch into the canal it comes to an end at the eardrum and is connected to it by a membrane which is much like the skin of a drum and is known as the tympanic membrane. So the outer ear starts in the air around you and communicates with the middle ear through the tympanic membrane.

What does it do?

It catches sound waves and leads them to the eardrum. It aso amplifies the part of the sound wave which carries a lot of important infromation about speech. Because the flaps face forward they helps you to hear better from the front than from the side or behind. Having two ears allows you to know where the sound is coming from. This also allows you to wear glasses. And jewellery in the form of ear rings.

The Ear and how it Works

Outer ear and canal

  • The middle ear

How does it look?

The tympanic membrane at the deep end of the ear canal is attached to one of the three tiny bones in the middle ear. This bone is then attached to another bone and that bone to yet another one. The third of these bones looks a bit like a stirrup and its flat bit is attached to another membrane which is part of the inner ear, and known as the oval window. The bone chain is held in place by muscles and tendons.So the middle ear receives from the outer ear and gives to the inner ear through the oval window.

What does it do?

The tympanic membrane receives sound waves from the ear canal and vibrates just like the skin of any drum. The bone chain moves in response to this vibration which results in a pumping action by the footplate of the stirrup. Because the tympanic membrane is much bigger than the footplate, the pumping is greatly magnified. This is sometimes called "the stiletto heel effect". For this vibration of the tympanic membrane and movement of the bone chain to work properly the middle ear space must have air at the same pressure at the ear canal. This is maintained by a tube which leads from the middle ear space to a space at the back of your nose. This is known as the Eustachian tube. 

The Ear and how it Works

Middle ear space

  • The inner ear

How does it look?

And now for the difficult bit so we'll keep it short - the inner ear is contained in a bony space shaped a bit like a snail shell and is known as the cochlea. It is a sac which has sections which are filled with liquids membranes and nerve or hair cells. It receives from the middle ear and gives to the acoustic nerve which in turn and eventually is linked to the brain.

What does it do?

The pumping action of the stirrup is picked up by the membrane at the oval window. This makes waves in the fluids of the inner ear sac. These waves cause a kind of rocking motion in a membrane within the inner ear (think a plank bobbing on a gentle ocean wave). Attached to this membrane are hair cells which become electrically excited by the movement. This excitement becomes nerve impulse which is sent to the acoustic nerve and then to the brain.

If you have any questions, or you would like to find out about your hearing, please call us on 0141 954 6030 for a chat or we can book an appointment for you

The Ear and how it Works

Inner ea

 

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