Audiology for Hearing Loss
Hearing loss affects more than 32 million Americans and ranges from the inability to hear certain high- or low-pitched sounds to total hearing loss in one or both ears. Hearing loss affects all age groups, although it is most commonly recognized as a condition that occurs with aging. Audiologists are specialists who diagnose, measure and treat hearing loss, and they can help you learn to manage and cope with hearing loss.
How Does an Audiologist Treat Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss treatments depend on the type of hearing loss that is diagnosed. The two main categories of hearing loss include inner ear or auditory nerve damage (sensorineural hearing loss), which is permanent hearing loss, and conductive hearing loss, which involves damage to the outer and middle ear and is often temporary.
Conductive hearing loss can usually be treated by an otolaryngologist with certain medications (such as antibiotics or steroids) or surgery. Conductive hearing loss is the inability for sound waves to reach the inner ear due to earwax build-up, fluid, congenital defect or a punctured eardrum.
After performing a complete hearing evaluation, an audiologist’s treatment recommendations for permanent hearing loss may include hearing aids, assistive devices and special communication training.
Hearing Aids to Treat Hearing Loss
Hearing aids can dramatically help with hearing loss, but the National Institutes of Health estimates that only one in five people who need a hearing aid actually get one. An audiologist can help you choose the type of hearing aid that is best for you. In most cases, two hearing aids are recommended rather than one, because they help balance sounds, improve hearing in a noisy environment and help you locate the source of sounds. After fitting you with the correct hearing aids, your audiologist will conduct follow-up tests and make adjustments as needed.
Assistive Devices Treat Hearing Loss
An audiologist can recommend certain assistive devices to help you at home, including special phones, vibrating alarm clocks, visible doorbells and smoke detectors, among others. An audiologist can provide tips for communicating with your loved ones, as well as information about lip reading and sign language classes in your community to aid communication.
Other Recommendations to Treat Hearing Loss
As part of the treatment plan for hearing loss, your audiologist may recommend a low-salt diet (1,500 mg sodium per day) and the avoidance of caffeine and nicotine. Diuretics also may be prescribed. These recommendations are thought to reduce the buildup of fluid in the inner ear, which can cause pressure and contribute to hearing loss.
An audiologist can provide a referral to a mental health professional (psychologist or psychiatrist) when necessary so the patient can learn to cope with hearing loss. Depression is common with hearing loss, because the person often feels isolated, embarrassed, frustrated and withdrawn as a result of the condition.
How is Hearing Loss Diagnosed?
An otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) is often the specialist you’ll see first for hearing loss. This specialist performs a physical examination and reviews your medical history, as well as orders diagnostic tests to identify any underlying medical conditions that may be causing hearing loss. The prompt identification of underlying disorders is essential so that you can receive the appropriate medical or surgical treatment and reduce the risk of ear damage and/or progressive or permanent hearing loss.
Medical conditions associated with hearing loss include:
- Ear infection (otitis media) that is left untreated
- Abnormal growth of bone or tissue
- Infectious diseases
- Head injury or other trauma
- Medications that harm the ear
- Ménière's disease
- Circulatory problems
- Neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis
- Certain autoimmune conditions, such as Cogan's syndrome
An otolaryngologist will refer you to an audiologist for a complete hearing evaluation, which includes diagnostic tests such as an audiogram (basic hearing test) and audiometry tests. An audiologist uses an audiometer to test your ability to hear sounds of different pitch and loudness. Often, several different audiology tests may be performed to properly identify and treat your specific hearing condition. Advanced hearing tests such as acoustic-reflex testing, electrocochleography (ECoG), otoacoustic emissions also may be performed.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss can occur as the result of a hereditary condition, disease, trauma, certain medications, long-term exposure to loud noise or as part of the natural aging process.
When Should I See an Audiologist for Hearing Loss?
You should call your primary care doctor right away if you experience sudden hearing loss in one or both ears, or if you have hearing loss that steadily occurs for up to three days. Sudden deafness is a medical emergency and requires prompt diagnosis and treatment to reduce the risk of progressive or permanent hearing loss and to increase the chance of recovery.
If you can identify with three or more of the statements below, you should see an audiologist for a complete hearing evaluation. Hearing loss that is ignored or left untreated can become worse.
- It is difficult to hear when using the telephone.
- It is hard to hear when there is noise in the background and some sounds seem too loud.
- I have a hard time distinguishing high-pitched sounds, such as children’s voices.
- I have to strain to understand others.
- People often need to repeat themselves for me.
- It’s common for me to misunderstand a conversation and respond inappropriately.
- It is hard for me to follow a conversation when more than two people are talking at the same time.
- It seems that many people I talk to are mumbling or not talking clearly.
- I have to turn the TV volume up high.
- I often hear a hissing, roaring or ringing sound.
When seeking treatment from an audiologist, be sure to choose a doctor who is certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Hearing Loss Association of America
American Academy of Audiology
National Institute on Deafness and Other Hearing Disorders