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Hearing & Balance Disorders

Otology/Neurotology is the study of diseases of the ear, including trauma (injury), cancer, and nerve pathway disorders, which affect hearing and balance. Examples of these disorders include ear infection; swimmer's ear; hearing loss; ear, face, or neck pain; dizziness and ringing in the ears (tinnitus).

Your ear consists of three major areas: the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Sound waves pass through the outer ear and cause vibrations at the eardrum. The eardrum and three small bones of the middle ear - the malleus, incus and stapes - amplify the vibrations as they travel to the inner ear. There, the vibrations pass through fluid in the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. Hearing occurs when sound waves reach the structures inside your ear, where the sound wave vibrations are converted into nerve signals that your brain recognizes as sound.

Hearing Loss
Attached to nerve cells in the cochlea are thousands of tiny hairs that help translate sound vibrations into electrical signals that are transmitted to your brain. The vibrations of different sounds affect these tiny hairs in different ways, causing the nerve cells to send different signals to your brain. That's how you distinguish one sound from another.

People suffer from hearing loss for wide variety of reasons. People may complain of being unable to hear or understand others. Older individuals may complain of tinnitus (a ringing or buzzing in the ears). Tinnitus is usually a manifestation of hearing loss, although it may have other causes as well. For some people, the cause of hearing loss is the result of a gradual buildup of earwax, which blocks the ear canal and prevents conduction of sound waves. Earwax blockage is a cause of hearing loss among people of all ages. Ear infection and abnormal bone growths or tumors of the outer or middle ear can cause hearing loss. A ruptured eardrum also may result in loss of hearing.

In most cases, however, hearing loss results from damage to the inner ear. Aging and prolonged exposure to loud noise may cause wear and tear on the hairs or nerve cells in the cochlea that send sound signals to the brain. When these hairs or nerve cells are damaged or missing, electrical signals aren't transmitted as efficiently, and hearing loss occurs. Higher pitched tones may become muffled to you. It may become difficult for you to pick out words against background noise. Heredity may make you more prone to these changes.

An audiologist is a healthcare professional who is trained to diagnose, treat and manage individuals with hearing loss and balance disorders. Otolaryngology Associates employs a team of professional audiologists that are among the most experienced hearing health care professionals and hearing aid dispensers in the Northern Virginia Area. Through our affiliated company, Advanced Hearing Services, Inc., we provide sales, fitting, orientation and service for all types, styles and major manufacturers of hearing devices. Our audiologists have helped countless children and adults improve their quality of life through our use of customized, programmable hearing devices and advanced digital technology. Give us a call at (703) 573-7606 to hear how we can help you.

Balance Disorders

Your sense of balance is maintained by a complex interaction of the following parts of the nervous system:

  • The inner ears (also called the labyrinth), which monitor the directions of motion, such as turning, rolling, forward-backward, side-to-side, and up-and-down motions.
  • The eyes, which monitor where the body is in space (i.e., upside down, right side up, etc.) and also directions of motion.
  • The skin pressure receptors in the joints and spine, which tell what part of the body is down and touching the ground.
  • The muscle and joint sensory receptors, which tell what parts of the body are moving.
  • The central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), which processes all the bits of information from the four other systems to make some coordinated sense out of it all.

The symptoms of a balance disorder may appear when the central nervous system receives conflicting messages from one of the other four systems. These symptoms may include may include dizziness, vertigo (spinning), disequilibrium (off balance and falls), and/or pre--syncope (light headedness).

Abnormalities in balance function may indicate a wide range of pathologies from causes such as low blood pressure to stroke or brain tumors. Most cases of dizziness and motion sickness,however, are mild and self-treatable disorders. Severe cases and those that become progressively worse deserve the attention of a physician with specialized skills in diseases of the ear, nose, throat, equilibrium, and neurological systems. Dr. Bryan McKenzie is our fellowship-trained otologist and neurotologist. He has extensive experience and particular expertise in the medical and surgical treatment of diseases of the ear and balance system.


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