A Brief History of Hearing Loss

A Brief History of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is as old as humanity. Though contemporary circumstances of industrialization and urbanization have exposed us to more noise than ever before, hearing loss is not unique to these realities. On the contrary, some hearing loss is a natural process of aging, and other forms of deafness and hearing loss occur due to natural genetic variation. With this in mind, you might be curious to know more about the history of hearing loss. How has it changed over time? How was treatment developed? What missteps occurred in the path from our past to the present state of technology? Let’s take a brief look at the history of hearing loss, hoping to better understand what can be done to solve these problems today, given the resources, knowledge, and technology we have available. 

Ancient History

The earliest records of hearing loss come alongside the first evidence of written language. In approximately 1550 BCE in ancient Egypt, the Ebers Papyrus records a remedy for an ear that hears badly. This remedy might seem shocking today. The papyrus recommends injecting olive oil, red lead, ant eggs, bat wings, and goat urine into the ears! Although there is no known purpose for some of these remedies, inserting a small amount of oil into the ear has been used as a homeopathic remedy for impacted earwax, suggesting that the ear might have been hearing badly due to too much earwax buildup. Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle refer to deafness and make false assumptions about the connection between hearing and intelligence. These assumptions plagued the hearing-impaired community in these ancient civilizations. Skeletal evidence of hearing loss extends even further in history to about 10,000 years ago. Some of these skeletons show bony growths in the ear canal that would have hindered hearing ability. 

Recent History

More recently, hearing loss appears in historical records in terms of accommodation strategies and treatments. For instance, sign language appears in a historical record from Burgundy in the early 10th Century CE. This strategy was developed by monks who had taken a vow of silence and wanted to communicate with one another. Although some noted the utility of this sign system for those who had hearing impairment, it was not until the mid-1500s that the first deaf school was said to introduce a manual alphabet. Treatments for hearing loss range from the bizarre to the effective. Some remedies seemed to have no effect at all, including herbs, salves, and eardrops that would not be able to repair broken or damaged components of the inner ear. Many forms of hearing loss occur due to damaged stereocilia, those tiny, hairlike organelles of the inner ear that detect subtle differences in frequency. Although these remedies would not have affected the stereocilia, other assistive technologies might have made a difference. For instance, ear trumpets use the basic principles of acoustics and physics to amplify a sound in the world. These devices could be heavy, cumbersome, and even dangerous if they were accidentally placed too far in the ear. Yet, they might have helped some people with hearing loss communicate before the development of more modern hearing aids.

These moments in the history of hearing loss are just a few examples of how human society has interacted with hearing impairment and deafness. Each historical situation was unique, and we can learn a lot from the ways that past societies treated those who had hearing loss. 

Hearing Loss Treatments Today!

If you have hearing loss today, you are lucky to have been born in an era with such a wide range of effective treatments. The latest hearing aids are remarkably able to improve hearing ability and facilitate better communication. If you have hearing loss but have not yet taken advantage of these tools of modern technology, don’t miss out any longer. Schedule a hearing test today, and embark on the path toward better communication and quality of life!

Kenneth H. Wood, BC-HIS

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