How The Ear Works

Knowing more about how the ear works can help you to understand what’s going on with your hearing and balance. People with balance problems don’t always realise that their ears might be the cause, but learning more about the physiology of the ear may help you to see which type of support you could benefit from.


Here’s an overview of what you need to know about the physiology of the ear:

The outer ear

The outer ear consists of the pinna (also known as the auricle) and the auditory canal. The purpose of the outer ear is to collect sound waves (which are simply differences in air pressure over time) from the surrounding environment, channelling them through towards the ear drum.

The outer ear also plays an important role in the sound localisation process. It’s estimated that the outer ear amplifies the sound level at the ear drum six-fold.

The middle ear

The middle ear is an air-filled cavity that is separated from the outer ear by the tympanic membrane (ear drum). Along with the ear drum, it is also the site of the ossicular chain, which is a bridge-like structure comprised of the three smallest bones in the human body: the malleus, incus and stapes. Together, these transmit vibrations from the ear drum through to the oval window of the cochlea (organ of hearing). When sound waves reach the ear drum, it leads to the drum vibrating according to the pattern of the movement of the impacting wave - a key part of how the ear works.

The ear drum vibrates slowly in response to low frequencies and rapidly in response to high frequencies. The structure of the middle ear is such that it is designed to act as a ‘lever’, and is therefore able to amplify the sound wave vibrations impacting the ear drum through to the inner ear 20-fold.

The physiology of the middle ear also includes the eustachian tube, which opens up at the rear end of the throat, and allows for the pressure on both sides of the ear drum to be equalised for healthy transmission of sound vibration.

The inner ear

The inner ear contains the cochlea (the fundamental organ of hearing), along with the vestibular organs, which comprise the semi-circular canals and otolithic organs.

Both of these parts of the ear play a key role in how the ear works in terms of maintaining balance.

Both the cochlea and vestibular organs feature complex fluid-filled labyrinths, along with specialised sensory receptor cells (hair cells), which function to transmit nerve impulses when stimulated by the movement of fluid.

In the cochlea, this fluid movement is induced by transmission of sound waves by the middle ear ‘lever’ mechanism. In contrast, fluid movement in the vestibular organs is caused by both linear and angular movements of the body and head respectively.


How The Ear Works: Hearing

Here’s how the physiology of the ear helps you to hear: when the ossicular chain of the middle ear conducts sounds to the oval window (a membrane located on the cochlea, connecting it to the middle ear), the fluids of the cochlea begin to move, stimulating the hair cells inside.

These hair cells send electrical impulses through the auditory nerve to the brain where they will be interpreted as sound.


How The Ear Works: Balance

The intricate physiology of the ear also impacts your balance. Angular and linear accelerations of the head and body cause displacement of the fluids within the vestibular organs. This in turn stimulates their hair cells, which then transmit impulses through the vestibular nerve to the brain. The brain then determines the relative positions of the head and body in relation to your environment, and responds by ensuring the necessary adjustments are made by your eyes and body to ensure balance is maintained*.

*Balance maintenance is also dependent on healthy visual and proprioceptive functioning.

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Find out more about how the ear works across our site. If you think you could benefit from ear wax removal or one of our balance services, book an appointment at your nearest London Ear Centre site today.

S Razzaque
Caring and professional staff, excellent clinic set up, very thorough ear and hearing diagnostics. Excellent service, recommend to all.
George Douloubakas
Mohammed providing a sterling service! He treated my blocked ears and also gave me additional details to help my TMJ. Excellent doctor and I highly recommend him.
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Went for microsuctuon. The doctor was knowledgeable, professional and friendly. Highly recommended.
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Great service w. Sunny who was prompt but thorough with the wax removal. Thanks for the service!
Neha Muthiyan
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