Hearing and Balance Disorders

Related Specialists

Audiology Services

Learn more about Audiology at UC San Diego Health System.

UC San Diego Health System is a leader in the correction of ear disorders. We perform surgery for hearing reconstruction including the ear drum and the ossicles, mastoidectomies for infection, tumors and trauma, congenital aural atresia repairs, otosclerosis surgery (stapedectomy), and surgery for acoustic neuromas, to name a few.

Hearing and balance are closely connected functions of the inner ear. At UC San Deigo, our audiologists and otologists provide comprehensive diagnostic evaluation, specialized surgical and medical treatment, and assistive technology for hearing loss, ear diseases and balance-related disorders.

As an academic health system, UC San Diego physicians and researchers at the Ear Center are dedicated to the highest level of patient care and energetic pursuit of improved therapies for these conditions.

Read more about our services at the tabs below.

Understanding Hearing Loss

The sense of hearing is achieved through a combination of functions of the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Sound waves pass through the outer ear, are amplified in the middle ear and travel to the inner ear. The inner ear is a fluid-filled series of chambers. One of these chambers, the cochlea, is responsible for converting sound vibrations into nerve impulses. It is these nerve impulses that the human brain interprets as sound and what we call “hearing.” 

The inner ear also contains the semicircular canals which are responsible, in part, for sensing movement and maintaining balance.

Disorders of any of these structures can lead to hearing loss.

Hearing loss is one of the most common congenital disorders in humans. Two to three out of every 1,000 children in the U.S. are born deaf or hard-of-hearing. Hearing loss is also one of the leading disabilities among older people. 18 percent of American adults 45-64 years old, 30 percent of adults 65-74 years old, and 47 percent of adults 75 years old or older have a hearing impairment according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

Hearing loss can be conductive, sensorineural or both. Learn about how we test for hearing loss.

Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss happens when there is a mechanical problem in the outer or middle ear and sound does not reach the inner ear (cochlea).

Causes of conductive hearing loss:

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss relates to hearing loss caused by damage to the sensory nerve cells of the inner ear (cochlea), or to the auditory nerve. The sensory nerve cells in the cochlea convert the sound vibrations amplified by the middle ear bones into electrical impulses that are transmitted along the auditory nerve to your brain.

Repeated exposure to loud sounds, damaging chemicals and ototoxic drugs can cause damage to the sensory nerve cells in the cochlea. Presbycusis, which is age-related hearing loss, is sensorineural and the result of degeneration of the sensory nerve cells. Other causes of sensorineural hearing loss are infection, autoimmune disease or tumors.


Hearing loss is treated differently depending on its cause. Some hearing disorders can be treated medically or surgically. Hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive hearing devices can also help if hearing is not treatable or restored to an acceptable level. UC San Diego Health System provides expert care to individuals with hearing loss. We are developing new minimally invasive surgical techniques and medical therapies and technologies that are changing the field of auditory medicine.

Surgery can be an effective treatment for hearing loss caused by tumors, trauma, perforation of the ear drum and congenital malformations. We provide advanced microsurgery, minimally invasive surgery, and complex open surgeries to patients from throughout the region to address these conditions.

Comprehensive Cochlear Implant Program

The pro and con of cochlear implants

Jeffrey Harris, MD, talks to UT San Diego about the impact of cochlear implants on hearing, speech and education.

A cochlear implant is an electronic device that stimulates the auditory nerve fibers in the cochlea providing hearing to people with next to complete hearing loss. UC San Diego Health System operates the largest cochlear implant program in the region. Our expertise in this area spans over 25 years of continuous expert care. Our team includes five cochlear implant surgeons for both adult and children.

Hearing aids detect and amplify sound to the ear. Assistive hearing devices are used in different settings depending on a person’s particular needs. Assistive hearing devices include amplified telephones and answering machines, wake-up alarms that vibrate and loud door bells. Our team at UC San Diego Health System is equipped in the latest technology for hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive hearing devices. Read more about these devices through audiology services.

Balance Disorders

The vestibular system in the inner ear is responsible for our sense of balance. Balance disorders can cause you to feel dizzy, lightheaded, disoriented and feeling like you are falling or floating. Infections, head injury, circulation issues and certain medications can cause balance problems. We regularly see patients for the following balance-related disorders at the Ear Center:

Treatment for balance disorders varies on the condition and the individual. Up to 80 percent of people obtain relief with vestibular exercise which is physical therapy to help you regain balance. Other treatment can include dietary changes, medication, and surgery. The experienced otolaryngology specialists at the Ear Center work together to evaluate and treat your balance problems. Our comprehensive balance disorders team provides specialized care, and, depending on your diagnosis, may include physicians and therapists from other specialties.