Excessive bone growth in your middle ear can cause otosclerosis, a condition that affects your ability to hear. Progressive hearing loss is the main symptom of otosclerosis.
Your middle ear is home to the three smallest bones in your body: the malleus, incus, and stapes. Despite their tiny size, these three bones have an essential role in your hearing. When your eardrum vibrates in response to sound waves, these bones carry the vibrations to your inner ear.
If you have otosclerosis, the otic capsule — the wall that helps protect your inner ear — develops bony growths that extend toward these three bones. Eventually, the new bone growth hardens and creates scars in your middle ear, particularly around the stapes.
This blockage makes it more difficult for the tiny middle-ear bones to transmit sound vibrations as they usually would. As this abnormal bone growth continues, you’ll typically begin to experience hearing loss.
The symptoms of otosclerosis often come on gradually, and they may not always become severe. Still, you’ll want to pay attention to these main signs.
Otosclerosis causes conductive hearing loss, or hearing loss caused by damage or blockages in your middle or outer ear.
Initially, you may have trouble hearing low pitches, but over time, you might find all pitches difficult to hear.
For instance, you might have a hard time hearing your partner speak from another room, especially if they have a quieter voice. Or maybe your co-worker whispers something to you during a meeting, and you have no idea what they just said.
Your own voice may also seem very loud, so you might lower it to the point where other people have a hard time hearing you. Over time, you might find yourself turning up the volume on your devices, especially when you use headphones.
Conversely, you may have less trouble hearing in noisier circumstances, such as a party, busy office, or anywhere else people tend to use their “outside voices.”
This hearing loss will generally get worse over time. Most often, it begins in one ear and eventually moves to your other ear.
Many people who experience hearing loss also notice a symptom called tinnitus.
It’s usually described as a “ringing” in one or both ears, but tinnitus may also sound like roaring, hissing, or buzzing. These sounds may come and go, but you might also hear them most of the time.
One cause of tinnitus is damage to the bones in your middle ear, which is why otosclerosis often involves this symptom.
Your ears don’t just help you hear. Your inner ear contains your vestibular system, which relays essential information to your brain so you can maintain your balance when you stand and walk.
The ear damage caused by otosclerosis can begin to disrupt the delicate system in your ear canals, affecting their ability to sense your movements. As a result, you may have a harder time keeping your balance, especially when changing position or moving your head.
In addition to feeling unsteady on your feet, you might also have spells of dizziness and lightheadedness or vertigo, where it seems as if the room spins around you.
Hearing loss can have a number of different causes, and only a trained healthcare professional can make the right diagnosis.
For that reason, it’s always best to connect with a hearing specialist if you begin to have trouble hearing or if your hearing difficulties get worse over time.
If you have a regular doctor, you can start by making an appointment with them to explain the issue and get a referral to an audiologist or otolaryngologist, also called an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT).
Tests that can help diagnose otosclerosis include:
- Audiogram: This test helps check your hearing.
- Tympanogram: This test helps check whether your middle ear conducts sound as it should.
- CT scan: This test can help reveal unusual bone growth or damage within your ear.
As a general rule, your treatment options depend on the level of hearing loss you’ve experienced.
For mild hearing loss, your care team may recommend monitoring your symptoms. You also have the option of trying a hearing aid.
For severe hearing loss, you may need a stapedectomy or stapedotomy. These procedures can improve your hearing by replacing part or all of the stuck bone with a prosthetic device.
Over 3 millionadults in the United States live with otosclerosis, but some people have a higher chance of developing it.
According to the American Hearing Research Foundation, you’re more likely to develop otosclerosis if you have at least one parent with the condition. White women of European descent have the highest risk.
Both children and adults can have this condition, but symptoms tend to appear after the age of 10 and before the age of 45.
Otosclerosis happens when irregular bone growth prevents the bones in your middle ear from moving as they should. This condition causes hearing loss that often gets worse over time.
If you start to have difficulty hearing whispers or sounds with a low volume or pitch, you’ll want to reach out to a hearing specialist as soon as possible — especially if you have other symptoms, such as trouble with balance or persistent ringing in your ears.