Special Senses- Ear

Special senses- Ear

The human ear, a masterpiece of natural engineering, plays a crucial role in our daily interactions and experiences. It is not just an organ of auditory perception, but also a sophisticated system that helps us maintain balance and spatial orientation. The ear is one of the five special senses, each having specialized organs devoted to them. This article delves into the fascinating world of the ear, exploring its intricate anatomy, the remarkable process of hearing, and its indispensable role in balance.

Structure of ear

The ear is a complex organ that serves two main functions: hearing and balance. It can be divided into three main parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.

Special senses ear
Special senses ear source wikimedia

Outer ear

The outer ear is the part of the ear that’s visible and is what most people mean when they say “ear”. It consists of three main parts:

Auricle (Pinna)

The auricle, also known as the pinna, is the part of the ear you see on the outside of the body. It consists of a curved framework of cartilage covered in skin that directs sound waves into the ear. The auricle consists of many different parts:

  • Helix: This is the outermost curve of cartilage extending from the head to the ear lobe.
  • Antihelix: This is a Y-shaped ridge inside the helix that follows the outer curve of the ear.
  • Crux helix: This C-shaped ridge extends from the top of the helix to the bottom of the antihelix.
  • Tragus and Antitragus: These are smaller ridges of cartilage that encircle the ear canal.
  • Concha: These are depressions between the ridges of cartilage that lead to the ear canal.
  • Lobule (Earlobe): Also called the earlobe, this is the only part of the auricle not supported by cartilage.

External Acoustic Meatus (Ear Canal)

The ear canal, also called the external acoustic meatus, is the tube that extends from the concha to the eardrum. The walls of the canal are made up of one-third cartilage and two-thirds bone. The ear canal is not straight but follows an S-shaped path that helps keep water and debris out of the ear.

Tympanic Membrane (Eardrum)

The tympanic membrane, also known as the eardrum, is a thin, cone-shaped membrane that separates the external ear from the middle ear. It vibrates when sound waves hit it, and these vibrations are transmitted to the bones of the middle ear.

Middle ear

The middle ear is an air-filled, pressurized space within the petrous portion of the temporal bone. It extends from the tympanic membrane (eardrum) to the lateral wall of the inner ear. The middle ear is lined by mucous membrane and communicates with the nasopharynx anteriorly via the pharyngotympanic (Eustachian) tube and the mastoid antrum and air cells posteriorly.

Structurally, the middle ear is made up of two parts: the tympanic cavity and the epitympanic recess. The tympanic cavity is directly medial to the tympanic membrane, whereas the epitympanic recess is the space superior to the membrane.

The middle ear houses three small bones called the auditory ossicles, which are responsible for transmitting sound vibrations from the tympanic membrane to the inner ear. These bones are the malleus (hammer), incus (anvil), and stapes (stirrup).

Additionally, the middle ear contains two small muscles, the stapedius and tensor tympani which are associated with the ossicles. The middle ear also contains the chorda tympani nerve (a branch of the facial nerve, CN VII) and the tympanic plexus of nerves from the glossopharyngeal nerve (CN IX).

The boundaries of the middle ear:

  • Roof (Tegmen tympani): A thin plate of squamous and petrous parts of the temporal bone forms the upper boundary (roof) of the tympanic cavity.
  • Anterior wall: Contains the internal carotid artery canal and the tympanic opening of the auditory tube.
  • Posterior wall: Contains the aditus to the mastoid antrum and the pyramidal eminence.
  • Lateral wall: Contains the tympanic membrane.
  • Medial wall: Contains the promontory of the tympanic cavity.
  • Floor: Contains the tympanic canaliculus.

The function of the middle ear is to transform sound waves into vibrations and transmit these vibrations to the internal ear.

Inner ear

The inner ear, also known as the labyrinth, is the deepest part of your ear and plays a key role in your hearing and sense of balance. It consists of three main parts:


The cochlea is the auditory area of the inner ear that changes sound waves into nerve signals. It is filled with fluid and shaped like a snail, tapering from a wide end called the base to a narrow head called the apex. The cochlea is split into three tubes by two thin membranes3. One of these membranes — the basilar membrane — is like an elastic wall, on top of which sits the organ of Corti. In the organ of Corti, there are tiny cells called hair cells. These cells are so small that the approximately 18,000 cells in your cochlea could fit on the head of a pin. Stereocilia are on top of these hair cells. Stereocilia are delicate, hair-like projections that react to cochlea fluid movement.

Semicircular Canals (Labyrinth)

The semicircular canals sense balance and posture to assist in equilibrium. The 3 semicircular canals are loop-shaped tubes in the inner ear. They’re filled with liquid and lined with fine hairs, just like in the cochlea, except these hairs pick up body movements instead of sounds1. The hairs act like sensors that help you with your balance. The semicircular canals sit at right angles to each other. This helps them measure motions no matter what position you’re in.


This is the area of the inner ear cavity that lies between the cochlea and semicircular canals, also assisting in equilibrium.

The inner ear has two main functions. It helps you hear and keep your balance. The parts of the inner ear are attached but work separately to do each job. The cochlea works with parts of the outer and middle ear to help you hear sounds. It looks like a small spiral-shaped snail shell. The cochlea is filled with liquid. It contains a smaller, sensitive structure called the organ of Corti1. This acts like the body’s “microphone.” It contains 4 rows of tiny hairs that pick up the vibrations from the sound waves.

Functions of ear

Hearing (Auditory Function)

  • Sound Collection: The outer ear collects sound waves and directs them into the ear canal.
  • Vibration: The sound waves hit the eardrum, causing it to vibrate.
  • Amplification and Transmission: These vibrations are passed on to the three tiny bones (ossicles) in the middle ear. The ossicles amplify and transmit these sound waves to the inner ear.
  • Transformation into Electrical Signals: Once the sound waves reach the inner ear, tiny hair cells called stereocilia transform the vibrations into electrical energy.
  • Transmission to the Brain: These electrical signals are then sent along nerve fibers to the brain.
  • Interpretation of Sound: Finally, the brain translates these electrical signals into what we perceive as sound.

Balance (Equilibrium Function)

  • Detection of Head Movement: The inner ear contains semicircular canals filled with fluid and hair-like sensors. When you move your head, the fluid inside these loop-shaped canals sloshes around and moves the hairs.
  • Transmission to the Brain: The hairs transmit this information along the vestibular nerve to the brain.
  • Maintenance of Balance: Finally, the brain sends signals to your muscles to help you stay balanced.

Ear disorders

  • Ear Infections: Ear infections are the most common illness in infants and young children. They occur when a bacteria or virus causes inflammation and infection of the middle ear. Symptoms include ear pain, fever, and difficulty hearing. Treatment often involves antibiotics.
  • Tinnitus: Tinnitus is a condition characterized by a constant ringing, buzzing, or roaring sound in the ears. It can be the result of loud noises, certain medications, or a variety of other causes. Treatment often involves sound therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medications.
  • Meniere’s Disease: Meniere’s disease is an inner ear disorder that can cause vertigo (dizziness), tinnitus, and hearing loss. It’s thought to be due to fluid problems in your inner ear. Symptoms of Meniere’s disease include regular dizzy spells, hearing loss, ringing in the ear, and a feeling of fullness in the ear. Treatment often involves medications, physical therapy, and in some cases, surgery.
  • Ear Barotrauma: Ear barotrauma is an injury to your ear because of changes in barometric (air) or water pressure. Symptoms include ear pain, hearing loss or difficulty hearing, and dizziness. Treatment often involves medications to reduce inflammation and pain, and in severe cases, surgery may be required.
  • Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease: Autoimmune inner ear disease (AIED) is a rare disease that happens when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks your inner ear. It can cause dizziness, ringing in your ears, and hearing loss. Treatment often involves corticosteroids and other medications that suppress the immune system.
  • Chromosomal Disorders: Certain chromosomal disorders, such as Down syndrome and Turner’s syndrome, can cause low-set ears and are associated with congenital hearing loss.
  • Gestational Diabetes: Gestational diabetes can cause hearing loss in the baby. Increased circulating sugars in mothers during pregnancy can impair the microcirculation and can cause congenital anomalies of the inner ear resulting in congenital hearing loss.


In conclusion, the ear is a remarkable organ that plays a crucial role in our daily lives. Its intricate structure and complex processes enable us to perceive and interpret sounds, maintain our equilibrium, and interact with our environment. From the outer ear collecting sound waves, to the middle ear amplifying these vibrations, and the inner ear transforming them into electrical signals for the brain to interpret, each part of the ear contributes to our sense of hearing. Moreover, the ear’s role in maintaining balance is equally important, helping us navigate our surroundings with ease. However, various disorders can affect the ear, impacting our ability to hear and balance. Understanding these disorders is key to early detection and effective treatment.

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