Parts of the Ear and their Functions | Interesting Anatomy of Hearing

The ear is one of the important sense organs of Human Body.

There are a pair of ears on either side of the head.

Though we know our ears help in hearing the sounds. They also help in the maintenance of body balance.

This is why during an ear problem we suffer from dizziness and vertigo.

The ears perceive the sound from surroundings by converting sound energy (i.e. mechanical energy) into electrical energy which is carried by auditory neurons to the region of hearing in the brain.

Structure of Ear and its Parts

The ear has many parts that can be classified according to its regions. An ear can be divided into three regions as

  1. External ear
  2. Middle ear
  3. Internal ear.

Parts of the Ear and their Functions

External ear Anatomy

The external ear has three parts like

  1. Pinna
  2. auditory canal
  3. Tympanic membrane

The external ear starts from the part of the ear we see, that protruding part, and limited in the inner side by the tympanic membrane.

Structures: External, although may seem devoid of many structures, also has a lot.

A. Pinna

Pinna is the outer helical structure that we can see on each side of the head. It cannot be moved in humans, but in lower animals, it can be moved, like in rabbits, dogs, cows, etc.

The structure of pinna has cartilage covered up with skin. It is a single piece of yellow cartilage tissue, except for the lower lobule part, which is barely a piece of flesh and skin.

Functions of the pinna: Pinna acts as a condenser, it collects the sound waves from distant sources and channels them onto the tympanic membrane.

It’s an astonishing piece of art of nature that shows perfect engineering. A perfect condensation of sound is achieved through this pinna.

Further, the skin of pinna is used for grafting like nasal ala, or of hands. The cartilage is used in reconstruction surgery of the middle ear, or nasal bridge.

B. Auditory canal (External Acoustic Canal)

The concha of pinna leads to an ‘S’ shaped canal that ends at the tympanic membrane.

In humans, this canal is 24mm long. The outer part is directed upward, backward and medially and the inner part being directed downward, forward and medially.

One needs to pull the pinna upward, backward and laterally to have a look at the tympanic membrane.

The structure of the auditory canal has two parts.

a) The outer one-third of the canal is made up of cartilage. It has skin with hair follicles. Cerumen glands and pilosebaceous glands are also seen in this part and are a seat for Staphylococcus bacterial infections too.

b) The inner two-thirds of the canal is made of bone. It is devoid of glands, and hair follicles. But cerumen secreted in the outer part can be seen here too.

Functions of the auditory canal

i) It helps to carry the sound waves to the tympanic membrane.

ii) It also helps to avoid the entry of insects and keep the infections and dust away from the inner ear.

ear structure
Ear structure showing External, middle, and inner ear (Anatomy and Physiology by Ross and Wilson)

C. Tympanic Membrane

The tympanic membrane acts as the barrier between the middle ear and the external ear.

It is of 9-10mm in height, 8-9mm in width and 0.1mm in thickness, placed obliquely.

The tympanic membrane has two basic parts

a) Pars tensa: It is quite stretched with an attachment of head of the malleus bone.

b) Pars flaccida.  It is loose, reddish and has malleal folds.

Functions of the tympanic membrane

It converts the sound energy into mechanical energy in the form of oscillations. These vibrations are transmitted to the inner ear ossicles that in the course, help in hearing.

Middle Ear

In the above image, the region with a blue shade in the middle ear.

As we can see, it is the continuation of the tympanic membrane. A closed room, with the tympanic membrane on one side and oval and round windows on another side, the only aperture of this chamber is situated at its base, called the Eustachian tube.

Structures of Middle Ear

The middle ear is a densely packed portion of the ear. It has three small bones called ear ossicles

A. Ear ossicles

Three ear ossicles are found in a human namely-

  1. Malleus,
  2. Incus, and
  3. Stapes.
ear ossicles or ear bones
Three bones of the middle ear (Anatomy and Physiology by Ross and Wilson)

Malleus

This is a hammer-shaped bone, which is attached to the tympanic membrane (pars tensa part). And the other end is attached to the next ossicle called the incus.

Incus

As seen in the image, it is the next ossicle, which is attached with malleus on one side and with the stapes on the other side.

Stapes

This is the last ossicle and the smallest bone of the human body. It is attached with incus on one side, with the annular ligament on the attic of the middle ear, and on the other side, it is attached to the oval window.

Functions of Ear Ossicles

Ear ossicles play a critical role in hearing. The ear ossicles transfer the vibrations they receive from the tympanic membrane to the round window.

Not only this, but they also act as a safety valve. They can shut down hearing temporarily if some sound of large amplitude hits the tympanic membrane, by losing the annular ligament of stapes.

Moreover, they amplify the sound by many times as it reaches the round window.

Two muscles are also attached to these bones, called tensor tympani and stapedius. Stapedius is, no doubt the smallest muscle of the human body.

B. Auditory tube (Eustachian Tube)

This eustachian tube is a few millimeter long tube which connects the middle ear with the pharynx. It is the only vent to the otherwise closed middle ear.

Hence, you will notice that during cold or infection of respiratory system, your ears may become less audible.

Functions of Eustachian tube

The eustachian tube helps to have painless hearing.

This auditory tube maintains the air pressure of the middle ear equal with atmospheric pressure as the other side of air is exposed to atmosphere.

If not for this opening, the pressure will directly act on the tympanic membrane, bending it or even tearing it, causing immense pain, and resulting in deafness.

There are other structures in the middle ear, like the mastoid air spaces, the temporal air sinuses, etc., helping in hearing in indirect ways.

Internal Ear Anatomy

inner ear parts

The internal ear is where the two functions of hearing and balance are processed. It has 2 important parts like

Bony labyrinth

The Bony labyrinth is formed of bone, as the name suggests. It is divided into 3 parts:

A. Vestibule: This is the central chamber of the bony labyrinth. It has two recesses lodging into the utricle. It is the seat of the dynamic body balance.

B. Semilunar Canals: This is the Main seat of body balance in the bony labyrinth. Having calcium carbonate crystals help in the static balance. It has three semi-circular canals that act independently. All of them open into vestibule by five openings. All the canals are at a right angle to each other.

C. Cochlea: It is like a snail shell structure with compartments

Functions of bony labyrinth

It maintains the body balance by the help of the cerebellum a part of the brain.

Membranous labyrinth.

The membranous labyrinth is mainly formed of membranes, as the name suggests. Parts are:

A. Cochlea: Although the cochlea is a bony spirally coiled tube, the cochlear duct is a Membranous one. The cochlea has three parts namely

    1. Scala vestibule
    2. Scala tympani
    3. Scala media

Fluids are all around in the internal ear. It covers up all the chambers of the cochlea. The fluid present in scala tympani and vestibule is called perilymph, whereas, that present in the scala media is the endolymph. Both the scala tympani and the vestibule are connected with each other by an opening called Helicotrema. Scala tympani connects with subarachnoid space CSF via the aqueduct of Cochlea.

B. Cochlear duct: It is actually part of the cochlea itself. It consists of three membranes namely

    1. Basilar membrane, on which lies the organ of Corti.
    2. Reissner’s membrane, which separates the organ of Corti from the scala vestibule.
    3. Striavascularis.

Membranous labyrinth helps in hearing function.

Functions of Internal ear

Among all the functions except visual beauty, others are maintained and completed by the internal ear only.

It has a bony labyrinth, which helps in the maintaining of body balance via its parts vestibule and semicircular canals.

The Membranous labyrinth has an organ of Corti which helps in the hearing. It has hair cells that move during the vibrations which are passed by the stapes to the round window, and this opens the sodium-potassium channels among the perilymph and endolymph. The endolymph resembles the intracellular fluid, and perilymph resembles the extracellular fluid. The change in concentration of these cations leads to a change in the membrane potential of the Basilar membrane, which is taken as an Impulse by the auditory nerve, the 8th cranial nerve. And we can hear; Simple

The ear is the only organ of sono-reception. It lets us hear the sounds of the world.

Many diseases are caused to ear starting from minor diseases like infection, temporary deafness, to diseases of significant concern like Chronic suppurative otitis media CSOM, etc.

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