The human ear is the organ responsible for hearing and balance. The ear consists of three parts: the outer, middle, and inner ears.
The outer ear collects external sounds and funnels them through the auditory system. The outer ear is composed of three parts, the pinna (or auricle), the auditory canal, and the eardrum (tympanic membrane).
What are commonly called ears—the two flaplike structures on either side of the head—are actually the pinnas of the outer ear. Pinnas are skin-covered cartilage, not bone, and are therefore flexible.
The auditory canal is a passageway that begins at the ear and extends inward and slightly upwards. In the adult human it is lined with skin and hairs and is approximately 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) long. The outer one-third of the canal is lined with wax-producing cells and fine hairs. The purpose of the ear wax and hairs is to protect the eardrum (which lies at the end of the canal) by trapping dirt and foreign bodies and keeping the canal moist.
The eardrum is a thin, concave membrane stretched across the inner end of the auditory canal much like the skin covering the top of a drum. The eardrum marks the border between the outer ear and middle ear. In the adult human, the eardrum has a total area of approximately 0.1 square inch (0.6 square centimeter). The middle point of the eardrum—called the umbo—is attached to the stirrup, the first of three bones contained within the middle ear.
The middle ear transmits sound from the outer ear to the inner ear. The middle ear consists of an oval, air-filled space approximately 0.1 cubic inch (2 cubic centimeters) in volume. Contained in this space are three tiny bones called ossicles (pronounced OS-si-kuls). Because of their shapes, the three ossicles are known as the hammer (malleus), the anvil (incus), and the stirrup (stapes).
Auditory canal: Tunnel or passageway that begins at the external ear and extends inward toward the eardrum.
Cochlea: Snail-like structure in the inner ear that contains the anatomical structures responsible for hearing.
Eardrum: Also known as the tympanic membrane, a thin membrane located at the end of the auditory canal separating the outer ear from the middle ear.
Eustachian tube: A passageway leading from the middle ear to the throat.
Organ of Corti: Structure located in the cochlea that is the chief part of the ear through which sound is perceived.
Ossicles: Three tiny, connected bones located in the middle ear.
Otitis media: Ear infection common in children in which the middle ear space fills with fluid.
Otosclerosis: Hereditary disease that causes the ossicles to stiffen due to a build up of calcium.
Pinna: Also called auricle or external ear, the flaplike organ on either side of the head.
Vestibular system: System within the body that is responsible for balance and equilibrium.
Connecting the middle ear to the throat is the eustachian tube (pronounced you-STAY-she-an). This tube is normally closed, opening only as a result of muscle movement during yawning, sneezing, or swallowing. The eustachian tube causes air pressure in the middle ear to match the air pressure in the outer ear. The most noticeable example of eustachian tube function occurs when there is a quick change in altitude, such as when a plane takes off. Prior to takeoff, the pressure in the outer ear is equal to the pressure in the middle ear. When the plane gains altitude, the air pressure in the outer ear decreases, while the pressure in the middle ear remains the same, causing the ear to feel "plugged." In response to this the ear may "pop." The popping sensation is actually the quick opening and closing of the eustachian tube, and the equalization of pressure between the outer and middle ear.
The inner ear is responsible for interpreting and transmitting sound and balance sensations to the brain. The inner ear is small (about the size of a pea) and complex in shape. With its series of winding interconnected chambers, it has been called a labyrinth. The main components of the inner ear are the vestibule, semicircular canals, and the cochlea (pronounced COCK-lee-a).
The vestibule, a round open space, is the central structure within the inner ear. The vestibule contains two membranous sacs—the utriculus (pronounced you-TRIK-yuh-les) and the sacculus (pronounced SAC-yuhles). These sacs, lined with tiny hairs and attached to nerve fibers, function as a person's chief organs of balance.
Attached to the vestibule are three loop-shaped, fluid-filled tubes called the semicircular canals. These canals, arranged perpendicular to each other, are a key part of the vestibular system. Two of the canals help the body maintain balance when it is moving vertically, such as in falling and jumping. The third maintains horizontal balance, as when the head or body rotates.
The cochlea is the organ of hearing. The cochlea consists of a bony, snail-like shell that contains three separate fluid-filled ducts or canals. The middle canal contains the basilar membrane, which holds the organ of Corti, named after Italian anatomist Alfonso Giacomo Gaspare Corti (1822–1876) who discovered it. The organ contains some 20,000 hair cells connected at their base to the auditory nerve. The organ is the site where sound waves are converted into nerve impulses, which are then sent to the brain along the auditory nerve.
Sound vibrations travel through air, water, or solids in the form of sound waves. These waves are captured by the pinna of the outer ear and transmitted through the auditory canal to the eardrum.
The eardrum vibrates in response to the pressure of the sound waves. The initial vibration causes the eardrum to be pushed inward by an amount equal to the intensity of the sound, so that loud sounds push the eardrum inward more than soft sounds. Once the eardrum is pushed inward, the pressure within the middle ear causes the eardrum to be pulled outward, setting up a back-and-forth motion.
The movement of the eardrum sets all three ossicles in motion. The vibrating pressure of the stirrup (last ossicle) on the small opening leading to the inner ear sets the fluid in the cochlea in motion. The fluid motion causes a corresponding, but not equal, wavelike motion of the basilar membrane.
When the basilar membrane moves, it causes the small hairs on the top of the hair cells of the Corti to bend. The bending of the hair cells causes chemical actions within the cells themselves, creating electrical impulses in the nerve fibers attached to the bottom of the hair cells. The nerve impulses travel up the auditory nerve to the brain. Loud sounds cause a large number of hair cells to be moved and many nerve impulses to be transmitted to the brain.
A problem in any part of the ear may cause a hearing disorder or hearing loss. In general, hearing loss may be caused by a birth defect, an injury, or a disease.
Birth defects may include missing pinnas, low-set pinnas, abnormalities in the size and shape of the pinnas, or a narrowing or complete closure of the auditory canal. These conditions may be corrected by surgery. Other birth defects that can affect hearing include premature birth, low birth weight, and illnesses suffered by the mother during pregnancy (such as measles). These defects damage the inner ear, specifically the cochlea. Medical treatment for this type of hearing loss is very rare. However, many individuals gain some benefit by wearing hearing aids.
Injury to the eardrum is common. A perforated or torn eardrum may be caused by a buildup of fluid in the middle ear, a direct puncture, explosion, or blast. When the normally taut eardrum is perforated, it becomes slack and does not vibrate properly. In some cases, the eardrum will heal itself without treatment. In more serious cases, surgical treatment may be necessary.
Ossicles are very susceptible to trauma. Injured ossicles may become unattached, broken, or excessively stiff. Once again, surgical treatment may correct the disorder and restore hearing.
There are a variety of diseases that can affect the ear, causing a hearing loss. Otitis media, a common condition in children, refers to an ear infection within the middle ear space. When this normally air-filled space is filled with fluid, the movement of the bones is affected and sound cannot be transmitted easily. The typical treatment for otitis media is medication (antibiotics and decongestants). Otosclerosis is a disease that causes the ossicles to stiffen due to a build-up of calcium. It is a hereditary disorder (inherited through family), develops in early adulthood, and is more common in women than men. Treatment may include surgery or the use of a hearing aid.