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Anatomy of the Ear: How Things Work Together So You Can Hear

Anatomy of the Ear: How Things Work Together So You Can Hear

The human ear is the organ essential not only for hearing but for balance. In order to understand how it works and what can impact its health, we must first understand the anatomy of the ear.

Anatomy of the Ear

anatomy of the ear

The Outer Ear

The outer ear, medically termed the auricle or pinna, is the visible part and is made from cartilage and skin.

It consists of three parts called:

  • Tragus (the pointed prominence of the ear)
  • Helix (the outermost edge of the ear)
  • lobule (the fleshy part of the ear, where earrings are usually placed).

Next, you will find the ear canal, which extends from the outer ear to the eardrum. It measures about an inch in length, the skin of which is sensitive to pain and pressure.

The outer one-third of the canal is composed of cartilage, while the inner two-thirds is made of bone. Dividing the outer ear and the middle ear is the eardrum, also known as the tympanic membrane. Attached to its center is the malleus, or the middle ear bone.

The Middle Ear

Next on the anatomy of the ear is the middle ear, where three of the smallest bones of the body are located: the malleus (“hammer”), incus (“anvil”) and stapes (“stirrup”).

Collectively, these bones are termed “ossicles.” Linking the middle ear with the back of the nose is the Eustachian tube, which functions to equalize pressure. This is necessary for the transfer of sound waves. This tube is also lined with mucous.

The Inner Ear

The innermost part of the ear is composed of the cochlea, which has nerves for hearing as well as the vestibule and semicircular canals, which both possess receptors for balance.

Hearing and Balance

The anatomy of the ear facilitates how you hear. First, sound waves travel toward the outer ear, hitting the eardrum, which then vibrates. These vibrations then travel to the ossicles, which amplify the sound. The sound waves then move toward the cochlea, where they are converted into electrical impulses, then sent to the brain where they are interpreted as the sound we hear.

The semicircular canals found in the inner ear are configured in half-loops which contain fluid as well as hairlike sensor cells that function in balance. At the base of these canals are structures called the utricle and saccule that have sensory hair cells, which in turn have particles called otoconia, that tracks the position of your head with respect to gravity and linear motion.

Possible Ear Injuries

This sophisticated sensory organ, however, is prone to injuries:

  • Cut/scratch
  • Bruise
  • Swab injuries (often caused by cotton swabs jabbed into the ear)
  • Canal bleeding (also caused by swabs, fingernails and perhaps even ear exams)
  • Punctured eardrums (caused by pointed objects or tools)
  • Blood clot/hematoma (blood supply to the cartilage is cut off and needs to be drained; left untreated, it is at risk of deformation or ‘boxer’s ear’)
  • Loss of hearing (caused by blunt trauma or explosions)

Other Ear Conditions

The anatomy of the ear is also susceptible to certain conditions that have a host of causes:

  • Ear infections

Often affecting children and babies, ear infections called otitis media affected the middle ear. With this condition, the ear is clogged with fluid and mucus which can affect hearing. These infections usually go away on their own.

  • Tinnitus

Characterized by a high-pitched or low-pitched roaring, hissing, clicking or buzzing sound, tinnitus can be caused by loud sounds and medication, among others.

  • Meniere’s Disease

This condition affects the inner ear, causing extreme dizziness, tinnitus, on-and-off hearing loss and pressure or pain. Meniere’s disease usually affects just one ear and is the common cause of hearing loss.

Key Takeaways

The ear is a complex sensory organ that we use in everyday life. Thus, understanding the anatomy of the ear is important to help us take care of it and avoid possible injuries and conditions that can afflict it. If something feels wrong with your ear or ears, it is best to consult with your doctor immediately.

Learn more about Ear Conditions here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Ear Anatomy – Outer Ear, https://med.uth.edu/orl/online-ear-disease-photo-book/chapter-3-ear-anatomy/ear-anatomy-outer-ear/, Accessed March 21, 2021

Anatomy and Physiology of the Ear, https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=anatomy-and-physiology-of-the-ear-90-P02025, Accessed March 21, 2021

Inner ear and balance, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dizziness/multimedia/inner-ear-and-balance/, Accessed March 21, 2021

Ear Injury, https://www.seattlechildrens.org/conditions/a-z/ear-injury/, Accessed March 21, 2021

Ear Infections, https://medlineplus.gov/earinfections.html Accessed March 21, 2021

Ear Disorders https://medlineplus.gov/eardisorders.html Accessed March 21, 2021

Tinnitus, https://medlineplus.gov/tinnitus.html, Accessed March 21, 2021

Meniere’s Disease, https://medlineplus.gov/menieresdisease.html, Accessed March 21, 2021

Barotrauma, https://medlineplus.gov/barotrauma.html, Accessed March 21, 2021

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Written by Louise Nichole Logarta Updated May 26
Medically reviewed by Diana Rose G. Tolentino, M.D.
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