More than 48 million Americans suffer some degree of hearing loss,and it is the third most common physical ailment behind heart disease and arthritis. Only those who suffer from this debilitating ailment can fully understand how profoundly it affects so many different aspects of daily living. Fortunately, many causes are medically treatable, and even when the underlying source of hearing loss can’t be completely remedied, there are still ways to regain some or even most of what has been taken away.
Are You Talking To Me?
Before the invention of much of the modern machinery we find to be commonplace in today’s world, men and women lived relatively quiet lives, but face it, today we live in a loud world. Engines rev, horns blare, mega-amplified car radios blast us at practically every stop light. And we haven’t even mentioned jets, helicopters, construction equipment, the dog next door or grandpa listening to the television.
“When America became an industrialized society, we began to see an increase in hearing loss all throughout our society,” says Russell Fankhouser, Au.D., CCC-A, of the Appalachian Hearing and Speech Center in Johnson City, Tennessee. “The loud sounds that accompany industry and manufacturing have led to much of the hearing loss we see today.”
One in 10 Americans has trouble understanding the words in a normal conversation, and excessive exposure to noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss. Because of the delicate way our inner ear is constructed, loud noises can easily cause damage, and in many instances, the damage is cumulative, getting worse the longer and more often we are exposed to them.
Types Of Hearing Loss
There are three types of hearing loss.
Conductivehearing loss occurs when sound isn’t conducted efficiently through the outer ear to the eardrum and then through the bones in the middle ear to the cochlea. This can come about if the eardrum is damaged, through infection in the middle ear, allergies, fluid buildup in the middle ear, presence of a tumor, through congenital malformation, impacted earwax or obstruction of the Eustachian tube.
“Many times, conductive hearing loss can be remedied by one medical means or another,” says Jose Luis Jiron, Jr., M.D., of Ocala Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists. “Sometimes it is as simple as removing earwax that has built up in the ear canal and is pressing against the eardrum, or it can be as complex as specialized surgery to repair or rebuild the three bones that conduct sound from the eardrum to the cochlea: the malleus, incus and stapes. One way that many people are familiar with is a myringotomy, which is where a physician inserts tubes through the eardrum to aerate the middle ear and drain any fluid that has built up there. Whatever the cause, many times we can correct conductive hearing loss.”
Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the cochlea or the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain. This can come about through disease or viral illness, with advancing age, from head or ear trauma or from the side effects of certain medications.
“Usually, sensorineural hearing loss is permanent,” says Dr. Jiron. “If a person has sudden hearing loss that is found to be sensorineural, this is considered to be a critical and urgent matter for an otolaryngologist. Sometimes, if it is treated in time with steroids, which can include injections through the eardrum into the middle ear, then some of the hearing loss can be restored, but most times, once such loss occurs, it is permanent.”
Mixed hearing loss is any combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.
“Many times, the conductive aspect of mixed hearing loss can be corrected, but once again, it is harder to regain any sensorineural loss,” says Dr. Jiron. “It depends entirely on the root cause of the loss.”
Once physicians have done all that is medically possible to correct the physical reason for hearing loss, most people turn to hearing aids in an effort to boost what residual hearing remains. Hearing aids cannot truly correct hearing loss, they are simply amplification devices to make sounds louder and, therefore, more accessible to the person wearing them.
Getting A Boost
“There are a variety of different styles and types of hearing aids that can rehabilitate a person’s hearing by amplifying whatever level of residual hearing is left… while also suiting his or her lifestyle,” says Dr. Fankhouser. “We have devices that fit behind the ear or in the ear. Because, most likely, the person will be wearing the device eight hours or more a day, comfort is one of the most important factors we look at.”
Dr. Fankhouser says that hearing aids have come a long way since the first easily wearable analog devices were made available shortly after World War II. Newer digitized hearing aids (and some older analog devices) are computer customizable for each individual. When the audiologist conducts tests to determine the degree and pattern of hearing loss for the individual, a computerized database is stored and then used to program a microprocessor chip in that person’s hearing device. This Digital Signal Processor chip then processes, filters and amplifies the incoming sound optimally for that specific individual.
“Instead of the person having to adjust the hearing aid for sound loudness, the device automatically listens for softer sounds and helps buffer loud ones,” says Shon Murray, Au.D., of Hearing and Balance Solutions in Ocala. “This gives today’s devices the ability to help cut through background noise and enhance sounds such as human speech, thereby enabling users to better hear normal conversation in a loud and noisy environment.”
The biggest change in hearing aids comes in the ability to customize them in so many ways.
“Each individual has certain needs. Individual preference and style, the degree of hearing loss and whatever lifestyle the person lives, whether it be a quiet, sedentary one or a noisier, more active one, all determine what type of device is best suited for each person,” Dr. Fankhouser says. “We can very accurately customize not only the look of hearing aids but specifically what type of sounds need to be enhanced and which ones need to be filtered out.”
Many people are under the impression that hearing loss simply implies the person no longer hears sound as loudly or as clearly as they once did, or no longer hears any sound at all.
“Quite the contrary,” says Leigh Ann Watts, AuD, CCC-A, of Beneficial Hearing Aid Center in Ocala.“A person with hearing loss will generally say, ‘I can hear, but I can’t understand.’In most cases, when a person begins to lose their hearing, they develop a ringing, roaring or buzzing, known as tinnitus. Tinnitus is the brain’s attempt to fill in those reduced frequencies of hearing.
“Today’s technology in hearing instruments not only helps people hear and understand better, but it fills in those voids and, in turn, reduces the awareness of tinnitus. Those who need additional help can benefit from tinnitus therapy, which we personally customize for each patient with residual tinnitus.”
No Stigma Attached
Dr. Fankhouser says that the stigma once attached to hearing loss has given way to tolerance and acceptance—especially with children. Using the proper approach, not only is hearing loss not stigmatized, an affected child can be made to feel special.
“Whereas, at one time a child might have been teased when wearing a hearing aid, kids today ask to be fitted with hearing aids that are bright and colorful,” he says. “We even offer to help parents coordinate a party where a child with hearing loss can invite all of his or her friends to come and celebrate their new life. This way, the child’s friends can learn from adults what hearing loss is about and how to best communicate with their friend. Once children become familiar with what the hearing aid does and how it helps the child lead a more comfortable life, they simply accept it as part of their life.”
And that is good news to hear.