The ear is made up of three different sections that work together to collect sounds
and send them to the brain: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.
The Outer Ear
The outer ear is made up of the pinna — also called the auricle (pronounced: OR-ih-kul)
— and the ear canal. The pinna is the part of the ear you see on the side of your
head. It's made of tough
covered by skin. Its main job is to gather sounds and funnel them to the
ear canal, which is the pathway that leads to the middle ear. Glands in the skin lining
the ear canal make earwax, which protects the canal by cleaning out dirt and helping
to prevent infections.
The Middle Ear
The middle ear is an air-filled cavity that turns sound waves into vibrations and
delivers them to the inner ear. The middle ear is separated from the outer ear by
the eardrum, or tympanic membrane, a thin piece of tissue stretched tight across the
ear canal. Sounds hit the eardrum, making it move.
This movement leads to vibrations of three very small bones in the middle ear known
as the ossicles (pronounced: AH-sih-kuls). The ossicles are:
the malleus (pronounced: MAH-lee-us) ("hammer"), which is attached to
the incus (pronounced: IN-kus) ("anvil"), which is attached to the malleus
the stapes (pronounced: STAY-peez) ("stirrup"), which is attached to
the incus and is the smallest bone in the body
To hear properly, the pressure on both sides of your eardrum must be equal. When
you go up or down in elevation, the air pressure changes and you may feel a popping
sensation as your ears adjust. Ears adjust thanks to the narrow Eustachian (pronounced:
yoo-STAY-she-en) tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and acts
as a sort of pressure valve, so the pressure stays balanced on both sides of the eardrum.
The Inner Ear
The vibrations from the middle ear change into nerve signals in the inner ear.
The inner ear includes the cochlea (pronounced: KOH-klee-uh) and the semicircular
canals. The snail-shaped cochlea changes the vibrations from the middle ear into nerve
signals. These signals travel to the brain along the cochlear nerve, also known as
the auditory nerve.
The semicircular canals look like three tiny connected tubes. It's their job to
help you balance. The canals are filled with fluid and lined with tiny hairs. When
your head moves, the fluid in the canals sloshes around, moving the hairs. The hairs
send this position information as signals through the vestibular (pronounced: veh-STIB-yuh-ler)
nerve to your brain. The brain interprets these signals and sends messages to the
muscles that help keep you balanced.
When you spin around and stop, the reason you feel dizzy is because the fluid in
your semicircular canals continues to slosh around for awhile, giving your brain the
idea that you're still spinning even when you aren't. When the fluid stops moving,
the dizziness goes away.
The cochlear nerve, which is attached to the cochlea and sends sound information
to the brain, and the vestibular nerve, which carries balance information from the
semicircular canals to the brain, together make up the vestibulocochlear (pronounced:
How Can I Keep My Ears Healthy?
Take good care of your ears! Here are some smart steps:
Don't stick things like cotton swabs and fingernails into them. Doing so can scratch
the ear canal, push earwax deeper into the ear, and even rupture the eardrum. If you
find yourself having trouble removing earwax
from your ear canal, talk to your doctor.
Protect your hearing. Turn down the volume on video games, TVs, and, especially,
portable music players. Wear hearing protection (like earplugs or protective earmuffs/headphones)
when you're around loud noises (at a concert, car race, construction site, etc.).
builds over time. But it doesn't take long for problems to develop. Tiny earbuds
can harm your hearing as much as a large chainsaw. Keep this in mind when you reach
to turn up the volume.
If you have any trouble hearing, let your doctor know right away. If hearing loss
is treated early, the damage can be limited.