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Human (external) ear
Latin Auris
System Auditory system
MeSH D004423
Anatomical terminology

The ear is the sound. It not only receives sound, but also aids in balance and body position. The ear is part of the auditory system.

Often the entire organ is considered the ear, though it may also be considered just the visible portion. In most mammals, the visible ear is a flap of tissue that is also called the pinna (or auricle in humans) and is the first of many steps in hearing. Vertebrates have a pair of ears placed somewhat symmetrically on opposite sides of the head. This arrangement aids in the ability to localize sound sources.


  • Structure 1
    • Outer ear 1.1
    • Middle ear 1.2
    • Inner ear 1.3
    • Blood supply 1.4
    • Development 1.5
    • Vestigial structures 1.6
  • Function 2
    • Hearing 2.1
    • Balance 2.2
  • Disease 3
    • Deafness 3.1
    • Vertigo 3.2
    • Injury 3.3
      • Outer ear 3.3.1
      • Ear canal 3.3.2
      • Middle ear 3.3.3
      • Inner ear 3.3.4
  • Society and culture 4
  • Other animals 5
    • Invertebrates 5.1
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Anatomy of the human ear. The length of the auditory canal is exaggerated for viewing purposes.

The shape of the outer ear of mammals varies widely across species. However, the inner workings of mammalian ears, including humans', are very similar.

Outer ear

The outer ear is the most external portion of the ear. The outer ear includes the fleshy visible outer ear, called the pinna or auricle, the ear canal, and the outer layer of the tympanic membrane, also known as the ear drum.[1] :855 The outer ear is the only visible portion of the ear in humans and almost all vertebrates, and consequently the word "ear" may be used to refer to the pinna alone.

Human ear (from Descent of Man)

The auricle consists of the curving outer rim (the helix), the inner curved rim (the antihelix), and opens into the ear canal, properly called the external acoustic meatus. The tragus protrudes and partially obscures the ear canal. The ear canal stretches for a distance of about 1 inch, and consists of an inner portion surrounded by bone, and an outer portion surrounded by cartilage. The skin surrounding the external acoustic meatus contains glands that produce ear wax (cerumen). The ear canal ends at the external surface of the ear drum (tympanic membrane) [1] :856

Two sets of muscles are associated with the outer ear; the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles. In some mammals these muscles can adjust the direction of the pinna.[1] :855 In humans these muscle have very little action if any at all. These muscles are supplied by the facial nerve, which also supplies sensation to the skin of the ear itself, as well as the ear cavity. The vagus nerve, auriculotemporal nerve of the mandibular nerve, lesser occipital branch of C2, and the greater occipital nerve branch of C3 all supply sensation to portions of the outer ear and surrounding skin.[1] :855

The auricle consists of a single piece of fibrocartilage with a complicated relief on the anterior, concave side and a fairly smooth configuration on the posterior, convex side. The Darwinian tubercle, which is present in some people, lies in the descending part of the helix and corresponds to the true ear tip of the long-eared mammals. The lobule merely contains subcutaneous tissue.[2] In some animals with mobile pinnae (like the horse), each pinna can be aimed independently to better receive the sound. For these animals, the pinnae help localize the direction of the sound source. Human beings localize sound within the central nervous system, by comparing arrival-time differences and loudness from each ear, in brain circuits that are connected to both ears. This process is commonly referred to as EPS, or Echo Positioning System.

Middle ear

The middle ear is an air-filled cavity behind the tympanic membrane, includes three bones (ossicles): the malleus (or hammer), incus (or anvil), and stapes (or stirrup). The middle ear also connects to the upper throat via the Eustachian tube.[1]:858

The three ossicles transmit sound from the tympanic membrane to the secondary tympanic membrane which is situated within the oval window and is one of the two windows between the middle ear and the inner ear. The malleus bone is connected to the tympanic membrane, and transmits vibrations of the membrane produced by sound waves. The malleus has a long process (the manubrium, or handle) that is attached to the mobile portion of the eardrum. The incus bone is the bridge between the malleus and stapes. The stapes bone connects to the oval window, and is the smallest named bone in the human body. The three bones are arranged so that movement of the tympanic membrane causes movement of the malleus, which causes movement of the incus, which causes movement of the stapes. When the stapes footplate pushes on the oval window, it causes movement of fluid within the cochlea (a portion of the inner ear).[1]:858 The ossicles help in amplification of sound waves by nearly thirty times. The round window is the second of the two windows between the middle ear and the inner ear. The round window allows for the fluid within the inner ear to move. As the stapes pushes the tympanic membrane in the inner ear fluid moves and pushes the round window membrane out a corresponding amount.

In humans and other land animals the middle ear (like the ear canal) is normally filled with air. Unlike the open ear canal, however, the air of the middle ear is not in direct contact with the atmosphere outside the body. The Eustachian tube connects from the chamber of the middle ear to the back of the nasopharynx. The middle ear is very much like a specialized paranasal sinus, called the tympanic cavity; it, like the paranasal sinuses, is a hollow mucosa-lined cavity in the skull that is ventilated through the nose. The mastoid portion of the human temporal bone, which can be felt as a bump in the skull behind the pinna, also contains air, which is ventilated through the middle ear.

Normally, the Eustachian tube is collapsed, but it gapes open both with swallowing and with positive pressure. When taking off in an airplane, the surrounding air pressure goes from higher (on the ground) to lower (in the sky). The air in the middle ear expands as the plane gains altitude, and pushes its way into the back of the nose and mouth. On the way down, the volume of air in the middle ear shrinks, and a slight vacuum is produced. Active opening of the Eustachian tube is required to equalize the pressure between the middle ear and the surrounding atmosphere as the plane descends. The diver also experiences this change in pressure, but with greater rates of pressure change; active opening of the Eustachian tube is required more frequently as the diver goes deeper into higher pressure.

Abnormalities such as impacted ear wax (occlusion of the external ear canal), fixed or missing ossicles, or holes in the tympanic membrane generally produce conductive hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss may also result from middle ear inflammation causing fluid build-up in the normally air-filled space. Tympanoplasty is the general name of the operation to repair the middle ear's tympanic membrane and ossicles. Grafts from muscle fascia are ordinarily used to rebuild an intact ear drum. Sometimes artificial ear bones are placed to substitute for damaged ones, or a disrupted ossicular chain is rebuilt in order to conduct sound effectively.

Inner ear

The inner ear is split anatomically into bony and membranous labyrinths. This contains the sensory organs for balance and motion, namely the vestibules of the ear (cochlea.[1]:865–867

The bony labyrinth refers to a bone matrix which opens externally into the oval window, which connects with the incus, which transmits vibrations into a fluid called endolymph, which fills the membranous labyrinth. The endolymph is situated in two vestibules, the utricle and saccule, and eventually transmits to the cochlea, a spiral-shaped structure. The cochlea consists of three fluid-filled spaces: the scala tympani, the scala vestibuli and the scala media, which together are responsible for hearing.[1]:864–865

Blood supply

The blood supply of the ear differs according to each part of the ear. The external ear is supplied by the anterior and posterior auricular arteries, which are branches of the superficial temporal artery and external carotid artery respectively, and branches of the occipital artery.[1]:855 The middle ear is supplied by mastoid branch of the occipital or posterior auricular arteries, tympanic branch of the maxillary artery and some branches from different arteries, including the middle meningeal artery, ascending pharyngeal artery, internal carotid artery, and the artery of pterygoid canal.[1]:863 The inner ear is supplied by the anterior tympanic branch of the maxillary artery, stylomastoid branch of the posterior auricular artery, petrosal branch of middle meningeal artery, and the labyrinthine artery, arising from either the anterior inferior cerebellar artery, or the basilar artery.[1]:868


Vestigial structures

Humans, and primates such as the orangutan and chimpanzee, have ear muscles that are minimally developed and non-functional, yet still large enough to be easily identifiable.[3] These undeveloped muscles are vestigial structures. An ear muscle that cannot move the ear, for whatever reason, can no longer be said to have any biological function. This serves as evidence of homology between related species. In humans there is variability in these muscles, such that some people are able to move their ears in various directions, and it has been said that it may be possible for others to gain such movement by repeated trials.[3] In such primates the inability to move the ear is compensated mainly by the ability to turn the head on a horizontal plane, an ability which is not common to most monkeys—a function once provided by one structure is now replaced by another.[4]


The outer ear receives sound, transmitted through the ossicles of the middle ear to the inner ear, where it is converted to a nervous signal in the cochlear and transmitted along the vestibulocochlear nerve


Sound waves travel through the outer ear, are modulated by the middle ear, and are transmitted to the vestibulocochlear nerve in the inner ear. This nerve transmits information to the temporal lobe of the brain, where it is registered as sound.

Sound that travels through the outer ear impacts on the tympanic membrane (ear drum), and causes it to vibrate. The three ossicles bones transmit this sound to a second window (the oval window) which protects the fluid-filled inner ear. In detail, the pinna of the outer ear helps to focus a sound, which impacts on the tympanic membrane. The malleus rests on the membrane, and receives the vibration. This vibration is transmitted along the incus and stapes to the oval window. Two small muscles, the tensor tympani and stapedius, also help modulate noise. The tensor tympani dampens noise, and the stapedius decreases the receptivity to high-frequency noise. Vibration of the oval window causes vibration of the endolymph within the ventricles and cochlea.[5] :651–657

The hollow channels of the inner ear are filled with liquid, and contain a sensory potassium-rich endolymph. This causes the cell to depolarise, and creates an action potential that is transmitted along the spiral ganglion, which sends information through the auditory portion of the vestibulocochlear nerve to the temporal lobe of the brain.[5] :651–657

The human ear can generally hear sounds with frequencies between 20 Hz and 20 kHz (the audio range). Although hearing requires an intact and functioning auditory portion of the central nervous system as well as a working ear, human deafness (extreme insensitivity to sound) most commonly occurs because of abnormalities of the inner ear, rather than in the nerves or tracts of the central auditory system. Sound below 20 Hz is considered infrasound, which the ear cannot process.[6]


Providing balance, when moving or stationary, is also a central function of the ear. The ear facilitates two types of balance: static balance, which allows a person to feel the effects of gravity, and dynamic balance, which allows a person to sense acceleration.

Static balance is provided through the two ventricles, the utricle and the saccule. Cells lining the walls of these ventricles contain fine filaments, and the cells are covered with a fine gelatinous layer. Each cell has 50-70 small filaments, and one large filament, the kinocilium. Within the gelatinous layer lie otoliths, tiny formations of calcium carbonate. When a person moves, these otoliths shift position. This shift alters the positions of the filaments, which opens ion channels within the cell membranes, creating depolarisation and an action potential that is transmitted to the brain along the vestibulocochlear nerve.[5] :692–694

Dynamic balance is provided through the three semicircular canals. These are three canals situated perpendicularly. At the end of each canal is a slight enlargement, known as the ampulla, which contains numerous cells with filaments in a central area called the cupula. The fluid in these canals rotates according to the momentum of the head. When a person changes acceleration, the inertia of the fluid changes. This affects the pressure on the cupula, and results in the opening of ion channels. This causes depolarisation, which is passed as a signal to the brain along the vestibulocochlear nerve.[5] :692–694



Deafness refers to a partial or total loss of the ability to hear. This may be a result of injury or damage, congenital disease, or physiological causes. When deafness is a result of injury or damage to the outer ear or middle ear, it is known as conductive deafness. When deafness is a result of injury or damage to the inner ear, vestibulochoclear nerve, or brain, it is known as sensorineural deafness.


Vertigo refers to the inappropriate perception of motion. This is due to dysfunction of the vestibular system. One common cause of vertigo is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, when an otolith is displaced from the ventricles to the semicircular canal. The displaced otolith rests on the cupola, causing a sensation of movement when there is none. Meniere's disease, labyrinthitis, strokes, and other infective and congenital diseases may also result in the perception of vertigo.[7] :1151,1171


Outer ear

The auricle can be easily damaged. Because it is skin-covered cartilage, with only a thin padding of connective tissue, rough handling of the ear can cause enough swelling to jeopardize the blood-supply to its framework, the auricular cartilage. That entire cartilage framework is fed by a thin covering membrane called the perichondrium (meaning literally: around the cartilage). Any fluid from swelling or blood from injury that collects between the perichondrium and the underlying cartilage puts the cartilage in danger of being separated from its supply of nutrients. If portions of the cartilage starve and die, the ear never heals back into its normal shape. Instead, the cartilage becomes lumpy and distorted, a phenomenon called wrestler's ear (because wrestling is one of the most common ways such an injury occurs) or Cauliflower ear.

The lobule of the ear (ear lobe) is the one part of the human auricle that normally contains no cartilage. Instead, it is a wedge of adipose tissue (fat) covered by skin. There are many normal variations to the shape of the ear lobe, which may be small or large. Tears of the earlobe can be generally repaired with good results. Since there is no cartilage, there is not the risk of deformity from a blood clot or pressure injury to the ear lobe.

Other injuries to the external ear occur fairly frequently, and can leave minor to major deformity. Some of the more common ones include, laceration from glass, knives, and bite injuries, avulsion injuries, cancer, frostbite, burn and repeated twisting or pulling of a child's ear (a form of physical child discipline).

Ear canal

Ear canal injuries can come from firecrackers and other explosives, and mechanical trauma from placement of foreign bodies into the ear. The ear canal is most often self-traumatized from efforts at ear cleaning. The outer part of the ear canal rests on the flesh of the head; the inner part rests in the opening of the bony skull (called the external auditory meatus). The skin is very different on each part. The outer skin is thick, and contains glands as well as hair follicles. The glands make cerumen (also called ear wax). The skin of the outer part moves a bit if the pinna is pulled; it is only loosely applied to the underlying tissues. The skin of the bony canal, on the other hand, is not only among the most delicate skin in the human body, it is tightly applied to the underlying bone. A slender object used to blindly clean cerumen out of the ear often results instead with the wax being pushed in, and contact with the thin skin of the bony canal is likely to lead to laceration and bleeding.

Middle ear

Like outer ear trauma, middle ear trauma most often comes from blast injuries and insertion of foreign objects into the ear. Skull fractures that go through the part of the skull containing the ear structures (the temporal bone) can also cause damage to the middle ear. Small perforations of the tympanic membrane usually heal on their own, but large perforations may require grafting. Displacement of the ossicles will cause a conductive hearing loss that can only be corrected with surgery. Forcible displacement of the stapes into the inner ear can cause a sensory neural hearing loss that cannot be corrected even if the ossicles are put back into proper position. Because human skin has a top waterproof layer of dead skin cells that are constantly shedding, displacement of portions of the tympanic membrane or ear canal into the middle ear or deeper areas by trauma can be particularly traumatic. If the displaced skin lives within a closed area, the shed surface builds up over months and years and forms a cholesteatoma. The -oma ending of that word indicates a tumour in medical terminology, and although cholesteatoma is not a neoplasm (but a skin cyst), it can expand and erode the ear structures. The treatment for cholesteatoma is surgical.

Inner ear

There are two principal damage mechanisms to the inner ear in industrialized society, and both injure hair cells. The first is exposure to elevated sound levels (noise trauma), and the second is exposure to drugs and other substances (ototoxicity).

In 1972 the U.S. EPA told Congress that at least 34 million people were exposed to sound levels on a daily basis that are likely to lead to significant hearing loss.[8] The worldwide implication for industrialized countries would place this exposed population in the hundreds of millions. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has recently published research on the estimated numbers of persons with hearing difficulty (11%) and the percentage that can be attributed to occupational noise exposure (24%).[9] Furthermore, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), approximately twenty-two million (17%) US workers reported exposure to hazardous workplace noise.[10] Workers exposed to hazardous noise further exacerbate the potential for developing noise-induced hearing loss when they do not wear (hearing protection).

Society and culture

Stretching of the earlobe and various cartilage piercings

The auricles also have an effect on facial appearance. In Western societies, protruding ears (present in about 5% of ethnic Europeans) have been considered unattractive, particularly if asymmetric. The first surgery to reduce the projection of prominent ears was published in the medical literature in 1881.

The ears have also been ornamented with jewelry for thousands of years, traditionally by piercing (Ear piercing) of the earlobe. In both modern and primitive cultures, ornaments are placed to stretch and enlarge the earlobes, allowing for larger plug (jewellery) to be slid into a large fleshy gap in the lobe. Tearing of the earlobe from the weight of heavy earrings, or from traumatic pull of an earring (for example by snagging on a sweater), is fairly common.[11] The repair of such a tear is usually not difficult.

A cosmetic surgical procedure to reduce the size or change the shape of the ear is called an otoplasty. In the rare cases when no pinna is formed (atresia), or is extremely small (microtia), reconstruction of the auricle is possible. Most often, a cartilage graft from another part of the body (generally, rib cartilage) is used to form the matrix of the ear, and skin grafts or rotation flaps are used to provide the covering skin. Based on technology developed in 1997 and demonstrated by the "earmouse", an ear shape can be grown in the patient's body using their own cartilage to seed a frame temporarily implanted under the skin. When babies are born without an auricle on one or both sides, or when the auricle is very tiny, the human ear canal is ordinarily either small or absent and the middle ear often has deformities. The initial medical intervention is aimed at assessing the baby's hearing and the condition of the ear canal, as well as the middle and inner ear. Depending on the results of tests, reconstruction of the outer ear is done in stages, with planning for any possible repairs of the rest of the ear.[12][13][14]

Other animals

The pinna helps direct sound through the ear canal to the tympanic membrane (eardrum). The complex geometry of ridges on the inner surface of some mammalian ears helps to sharply focus echolocation signals, and any sound produced by the prey. These ridges can be regarded as the acoustic equivalent of a fresnel lens, and may be seen in a large variety of unrelated animals such as the bat, aye-aye, lesser galago, bat-eared fox, mouse lemur and others.[15][16][17]


Only vertebrate animals have ears, though many invertebrates detect sound using other kinds of sense organs. In insects, family.[18]

The tympanal organs of some insects are extremely sensitive, offering acute hearing beyond that of most other animals. The female cricket fly

  • Protein behind hearing
  • 3D Ear page
  • Details of various ear problems
  • Radiology of the Ear Canal from MedPix

External links

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Drake, Richard L.; Vogl, Wayne; Tibbitts, Adam W.M. Mitchell; illustrations by Richard; Richardson, Paul (2005). Gray's anatomy for students. Philadelphia: Elsevier/Churchill Livingstone.  
  2. ^ Stenström, J. Sten: Deformities of the ear; In: Grabb, W., C., Smith, J.S. (Edited): “Plastic Surgery”, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1979, ISBN 0-316-32269-5 (C), ISBN 0-316-32268-7 (P)
  3. ^ a b Darwin, Charles (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. John Murray: London.
  4. ^ Mr. St. George Mivart, Elementary Anatomy, 1873, p. 396. Two ears provide stereo imaging that the brain can use to develop a 3-dimensional sound field.
  5. ^ a b c d Hall, Arthur C. Guyton, John E. (2005). Textbook of medical physiology (11th ed.). Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.  
  6. ^ Greinwald, John H. Jr MD; Hartnick, Christopher J. MD The Evaluation of Children With Hearing Loss. Archives of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery. 128(1):84-87, January 2002
  7. ^ illustrated by Robert Britton, the editors Nicki R. Colledge, Brian R. Walker, and Stuart H. Ralston (2010). Davidson's principles and practice of medicine. (21st ed.). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier.  
  8. ^ Senate Public Works Committee, Noise Pollution and Abatement Act of 1972, S. Rep. No. 1160, 92nd Cong. 2nd session.
  9. ^ Tak SW, Calvert GM, "Hearing Difficulty Attributable to Employment by Industry and Occupation: An Analysis of the National Health Interview Survey - United States, 1997 to 2003," J. Occup. Env. Med. 2008, 50:46-56
  10. ^ Tak SW, Davis RR, Calvert GM "Exposure to Hazardous Workplace Noise and Use of Hearing Protection Devices Among US WOrkers, 1999-2004," Am. J. Ind. Med. 2009, 52:358-371
  11. ^ Deborah S. Sarnoff, Robert H. Gotkin, and Joan Swirsky (2002). Instant Beauty: Getting Gorgeous on Your Lunch Break. St. Martin's Press.  
  12. ^ Lam SM. Edward Talbot Ely: father of aesthetic otoplasty. [Biography. Historical Article. Journal Article] Archives of Facial Plastic Surgery. 6(1):64, 2004 Jan-Feb.
  13. ^ Siegert R. Combined reconstruction of congenital auricular atresia and severe microtia. [Evaluation Studies. Journal Article] Laryngoscope. 113(11):2021-7; discussion 2028-9, 2003 Nov.
  14. ^ Trigg DJ. Applebaum EL. Indications for the surgical repair of unilateral aural atresia in children. [Review] [33 refs] [Journal Article. Review], American Journal of Otology. 19(5):679-84; discussion 684-6, 1998 September
  15. ^ Pavey, C. R.; Burwell, C. J. (1998). "Bat Predation on Eared Moths: A Test of the Allotonic Frequency Hypothesis". Oikos 81 (1): 143–151.  
  16. ^ The Bat's Ear as a Diffraction Grating
  17. ^ Kuc, R. (2009). "Model predicts bat pinna ridges focus high frequencies to form narrow sensitivity beams". The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 125 (5): 3454–3459.  
  18. ^ Yack, JE, and JH Fullard, 1993. What is an insect ear? Ann. Entomol. Soc. Am. 86(6): 677-682.
  19. ^ Piper, Ross (2007), Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Greenwood Press.
  20. ^ Scoble, M. J. 1992. The Lepidoptera: Form, function, and diversity. Oxford University Press


See also

Simpler structures allow arthropod to detect near-field sounds. Spiders and cockroaches, for example, have hairs on their legs which are used for detecting sound. Caterpillars may also have hairs on their body that perceive vibrations[20] and allow them to respond to sound.


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