What is a hearing aid?
Hearing aids are small medical grade instruments that are worn in or on the user’s ear every day, often for 12+ hours a day! In general, they all work the same way. An external microphone or microphones pick up the sounds in the environment, use a math equation known as an algorithm to transmit the sound through the computer chip, and play the sound through the receiver at the ear-level to the patient. While there are different manufacturers, models, and styles, in general, they gather, process, and deliver sound to the listener in the same manner.
Hearing aids are tiny, powerful computer chips. They have an average life expectancy of about 4-5 years due to the many hours and technical specifications they operate under. Processing your environmental sounds, at your ear level 12+ hours a day, 365 days a year is a big job! Hearing aids and their internal technology are able to be updated and reprogrammed an infinite number of times but eventually the computer chip doesn’t perform at the same efficient level and the chip needs to be replaced. Routine appointments allow your audiologist to keep the firmware of your devices updated and working at their best abilities. There are tests your audiologist can run in-office to measure your hearing aids’ validity of performance. If the computer chip isn’t working properly you may have trouble with listening-in-noise, excessive battery drain, inappropriate automatic adjustments, and even a slower processing time from your hearing aid’s computer chip.
Our ears are our only sense, we don’t “turn off”, even in our sleep! Our ears are working constantly between working to keep unwanted objects out of your ear canal, the purpose of wax, in addition to listening to the environments around us! Ears are a pretty cool organ that actually do a really nice job of cleaning themselves. When we disrupt the ear’s natural ability to clean itself, such as using Q-tips in our ears, we often cause a cerumen, or wax buildup. When your ears have an excessive amount of cerumen. This can lead to hearing aids needing more cleaning than someone who produces less amounts of cerumen.
Why is cleaning hearing aids so important?
As mentioned above our ears are made up of skin, cartilage, connective tissues, and cerumen (wax) producing cells. This means our ears can and do produce sweat and ear wax. Keeping our ears clean and healthy is part of good hearing aid cleaning care and maintenance. If we let wax, sweat, or skin build up on the outside of the hearing aid it may also cause them to stop working completely! Luckily, cleaning the wax out of the hearing aid opening is an easy correction. It can be difficult if you have vision or dexterity problems. A little cleaning goes a long way in hearing aid care.
Internal parts of a hearing aid/Terminologies
There are two main types of hearing aids. Custom hearing aids, which require a mold or impression of your ear to be taken. They fit like a “puzzle” piece in your ear. The second type of hearing aid is a device that is non-custom and goes behind the ear with a tube or wire that wraps over your ear and has a dome or ear mold that sits in the bowl of your ear. Neither hearing aid is better than the other style, they are both equally great depending on your hearing loss. They have the same computer chips on the inside but different hearing losses, different ear anatomy, different preferences all play into the decision of which device style is better for you!
Hearing aids have a lot of technical parts and pieces that are important to the function of the device. This article will help you understand what some of these important pieces are and how they can benefit your hearing aid.
Button or “switch”- Almost all hearing aids have a button on the body of the device. The button can be programmed to be multifunctional in its purpose. The button is most commonly used to control the volume of your hearing aids. The right button is often used to raise the volume of both hearing aids, “Right Raise.” The left button is often used to lower the volume of both hearing aids, “Left Lower.” The button can also be programmed for program changes. This feature would allow you to toggle between the different program settings such as “all-around” or “restaurant” or an “outdoor” program. Programs are designed to help you excel in different environments that are different listening profiles than your everyday settings.
Receiver or “Wire” or “Speaker:- If you have a hearing aid known as a RIC (Receiver in the Canal) or RITE (Receiver in the Ear) you have a hearing aid that has a small piece sitting behind your ear and a wire that attaches to the top and comes over and down your ear to sit in your ear canal. That wire that attaches to the back and sits in your ear contains the speaker that places sound into your ear. Sometimes, this piece needs to be replaced as it has a loose wire, gets bent and stops working, or just stops working. Luckily, they are resilient and shouldn’t need to be replaced regularly. .
Domes or “Tips”- On the end of the receiver wire you will have little clear, gray, or black rubbery domes. The dome serves a few purposes on the end of your receiver. It helps secure the receiver in your ear canal, it provides acoustic benefits depending on the size and shape of your ear canal for keeping the sound in your canal rather than leaking back out of the canal.
Earmolds- On traditional Behind-the-Ear or BTE hearing aids you will find custom molded pieces that fit into the wearer’s ear. A mold is taken by administering a putty-like substance that is placed in the ear, allowed to harden, and then removed. This mold of your ear is sent to a lab and turned into a replica of your ear in an acrylic or silicone material. Another way to make an ear mold is to use an ear scanner. A tool with a balloon that fills with a liquid substance is used to make a 3D image on a computer screen. This 3D scan of your ear is sent to the earmold company and made into a silicone mold of your ear. Earmolds serve a few different purposes. Earmolds provide acoustical assistance and create better retention for the user to physically help keep the hearing aid securely in the ear. The opening or vents on earmolds shape the acoustics of your hearing aids. Audiologists will either open those vents or close them off to achieve the right prescriptive fitting based on your hearing loss and Real Ear Measure verification tool.
Regardless of the specific parts and pieces of your specific hearing aids, the general use and care of the devices does not change. They all need a little routine maintenance to keep them functioning at their highest level in-between your quarterly follow ups with your audiologist.
How can I care for my hearing aid?
In general hearing aids are low maintenance if you care for them a little bit each day.
1) Never skip daily cleanings! The first thing you might do in the morning is put on your hearing aids. This can be even easier if you already know the devices are clean. At night, when you take out your hearing aids, check them for any earwax or debris on the rubber dome or earmold. This can easily be removed using a hearing aid cleaning wipe or the brush tool included in your cleaning kit. You can also wipe or brush off the base of the hearing aid as well. Staying on top of cleanings will keep your hearing aids working properly and in their best shape!
2) Regularly replace the wax filter. Depending on the style of hearing aid you have, you may have a little white wax filter that protects your receiver wire/hearing aid from becoming clogged with earwax. This filter is either attached to the shell of the hearing aid if you have a custom device, or underneath the rubber dome tip or custom earmold. The filters can be changed in three easy steps. Step one is to remove either the rubber dome tip or custom earmold from the attached wire. If you have a custom hearing aid device, you can skip this step. Step two is to locate the little white filter and replace it with a new one. This will include getting a new filter stick from your white/gray packet, sticking the empty end into the old filter and pulling it straight out, and then sticking the new filter end straight into the opening and replacing it. Once you use a wax filter stick, you can throw it away. Step three is to replace your rubber dome/custom earmold on the end of the wire. Make sure it is secure to ensure it does not fall off.
3) Replace other parts as needed. There are many parts on a hearing aid that can be easily changed at home. If you notice your rubber ear tip has cracked, you can ask for extra to replace these at home. If you have hearing aids that have rubber tubing, make an appointment to have this replaced. The general rule of thumb for tubing is every 6 months, or as it becomes hard and stiff.
4) Keep your hearing aids dry. Hearing aids are water resistant, not waterproof. Therefore, you can wear them out in light rain or while you are exercising but should remove them to shower or swim. When removing your hearing aids, make sure to store them in your case/charger and within a safe, dry spot; this is especially true for battery powered hearing aids. Moisture can sneak into the devices through the battery door, more easily. If you accidently expose your hearing aids to water, you can call the audiologist office to schedule an appointment. Our office has a Redux machine that can help remove excess moisture from the hearing aids and give them a good dry out!
5) You may have cerumen (wax) in your ears! Ears are an organ that cleans themselves fairly well, but, the caveat is that we can’t interfere with their self-cleaning ways! When we use Q-tips, bobby pins, keys, and even more terrifying, needles in our ears we interfere with the ears natural ability to clean itself, which causes an overproduction of cerumen, and ultimately an unwanted buildup. Our ears produce new wax at the innermost portion of the outer ear canal. New wax is produced and pushes the old wax towards the entrance of the ear canal. Once the wax is near or at the opening when we shower and wash our faces we can remove the wax without bothering the natural process. Not all things in our ears are unwanted or bad! Depending on the style of hearing aid you wear or if you use hearing protection regularly it might inadvertently make the natural process for wax to get out of your ears a little more difficult which will require your audiologist to help remove it safely. Ear wax actually keeps unwanted things out of your ear canal so some wax is helpful but too much wax can make it difficult to hear and or clog up your hearing aids from working well.