This is how the ears work

How the ears are structured - from the auricle to the cochlea, how hearing works and what helps with ear diseases

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The graphic shows how the ear is anatomically structured

© W & B / Szczesny

Structure of the ears

The ears consist of the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear.

  • Outer ear: The outer ear includes the auricle, the ear canal and the outer side of the eardrum. The eardrum is a kind of stretched skin or membrane.
  • Middle ear: The middle ear begins at the eardrum. It contains the air-filled tympanic cavity. There are three tiny bones in it: the ossicles. They are called the hammer, anvil and stirrup.The middle ear is connected to the nasopharynx via the ear trumpet (Eustachian tube). In this way, the middle ear can be ventilated and pressure equalization between the tympanic cavity and the environment can take place. This is important when the ambient pressure changes, for example in an airplane.
  • Inner ear: This is where the cochlea (cochlea) is located. It contains the hearing organ. The organ of equilibrium (vestibular apparatus) is located directly next to the cochlea. The cochlea and organ of equilibrium transmit information to the brain via nerve tracts.

This is how hearing works

The ears have two important functions. On the one hand, they ensure that we can hear. On the other hand, they contribute to our sense of balance.

Hearing works like this:

  1. Noises and tones hit the auricle in the form of sound waves. It catches the sound waves like a funnel. At the same time, it helps to determine the direction from which a sound is coming.
  2. The sound travels through the ear canal to the eardrum and makes it vibrate. The vibrations are transmitted to the three ossicles and on to the cochlea.
  3. The cochlea contains so-called hair cells: These are sensory cells with tiny hairs at the end. They convert the vibration into electrical impulses and pass them on to the auditory nerve.
  4. The signal reaches the brain via the auditory pathway and processes the information: We hear.

The organ of equilibrium next to the cochlea ensures that we can keep our balance and orient ourselves in space. It consists of fluid-filled semicircular canals that register rotational movements and areas that register horizontal or vertical movements. The organ of equilibrium transmits information to the brain via the equilibrium nerve. There they are evaluated - together with data from many sensors in the body and information from the eyes. The body stays in balance.

You can find more details on the anatomy and function of the ears and the organ of equilibrium in our body atlas.

Ear disorders

Many diseases can affect the ears and affect hearing. If it comes to hearing loss, ear specialists differentiate between sound conduction disorders and sound sensation disorders.

Sound conduction disturbance: As the name suggests, the transmission of sound is disturbed here. The information does not reach the cochlea at all or only to a limited extent. Such disorders are in the outer or middle ear. An otitis media, eardrum injuries, but also too much ear wax or a foreign body in the ear canal are possible causes.

Sensory sensation disorder: It mainly affects the cochlea, i.e. the inner ear. One example is age-related hearing loss. The high notes and speech understanding are usually the first to be lost. A loud bang or prolonged exposure to noise can cause noise-induced hearing loss.

Combined sound conduction and sound sensation disturbances also occur.

Here you can find out more about the causes of earache, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and ear diseases: