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Hearing Loss

Hearing loss happens when any part of the ear or auditory (hearing) system isn’t working the way it should. There are various degrees of hearing loss, ranging from mild/moderate to severe/profound. Hearing loss presents in a variety of different ways.  Some people are born with hearing loss, others experience it before or after learning to speak.  Hearing loss can occur in one or both ears.  Hearing loss can develop slowly over time or occur suddenly. It can even fluctuate between getting better and getting worse repeatedly as time passes.

Symptoms of Hearing Loss

There are many ways to tell if you or someone you love is experiencing hearing loss. Some symptoms to look out for are:

  • Muffling of speech and other sounds
  • Difficulty understanding words, especially in a crowd or when there’s other background noise interfering
  • Difficulty hearing consonants
  • Frequently saying “what?” and asking others to repeat themselves
  • Needing to turn up the volume of the television or radio
  • Finding it hard to keep up with conversations
  • Withdrawal from conversations
  • Avoidance of some social settings
  • Trouble understanding people over the phone
  • Feeling tired from having to concentrate while listening

It’s important to remember that signs of hearing loss can sometimes be difficult to notice as they happen over time, especially when it comes to age-related hearing loss. So, if you notice anything out of the ordinary, don’t ignore it! No matter how severe the hearing loss, there are ways to address it.

Types of Hearing Loss

Now that we know what hearing loss is, let’s take a look into the different types that exist. There are three main kinds of hearing loss, and they all affect people a little differently. They are:

Conductive Hearing Loss:

This hearing loss is caused by something that stops sound from getting past the outer or middle ear. Usually, conductive hearing loss can be treated through medicine or by surgery.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss:

This is caused by an issue in the way the inner ear or hearing nerve works. Depending on the severity, this can be treated with hearing aids and/or cochlear implants.

Mixed Hearing Loss:

In this case, hearing loss is caused by both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. Typically, mixed hearing loss requires treatment of the conductive issue first followed by appropriately addressing the sensorineural hearing loss.

No matter what kind of hearing loss one may be experiencing, the good news is there are audiologists (hearing specialists) available who are dedicated to helping the hearing impaired!

Causes of Hearing Loss

The causes for hearing loss can vary.

Conductive Hearing Loss occurs when there are issues with the ear canal, ear drum, or the middle ear. A few examples of conductive hearing loss causes include:

  • Malformation of outer ear, ear canal, or middle ear structure
  • Fluid in the middle ear
  • Allergies
  • Perforated eardrum
  • Earwax buildup
  • Foreign object in the ear

Sensorineural Hearing Loss is also known as nerve-related hearing loss and is usually due to problems with the inner ear. Potential causes of sensorineural hearing loss include:

  • Exposure to loud noise
  • Aging
  • Head trauma
  • Virus or disease (tumors)
  • Autoimmune inner ear disease
  • Heredity
  • Malformation of the inner ear

Mixed Hearing Loss is caused by a combination of conductive damage in the outer or middle ear and sensorineural damage in the inner ear or auditory nerve.

Risk Factors Associated with Hearing Loss

As you can imagine, there are a variety of risk factors associated with hearing loss. Some of them are preventable while others are largely unavoidable.

  • Age-related hearing loss
  • Hereditary factors
  • Some diseases, like meningitis, may damage the cochlea as a result of a high fever
  • Some medications may have a temporary or long-term impact on hearing health
  • Exposure to loud sounds
  • Work environments where loud sounds are common
  • Recreational noises, such as firearms, snowmobiling, or listening to loud music

If you will be exposed to preventable risk factors, it is recommended you wear ear protection, such as ear plugs, to dampen the sound and reduce the impact on your ears. There are a variety of options out there: foam, pre-molded, wax, silicone, and more!  If possible, make wearing hearing protection a habit.

Tests for Hearing Loss

Audiologists are able to perform a variety of diagnostic hearing tests to discover what kind of hearing loss someone may have. Tests are used to discover:

  • If there is hearing loss
  • The cause of hearing loss (if it is possible to determine)
  • How severe the hearing loss is
  • Whether the hearing loss is in one or both ears
  • Best treatment options available

Depending on what symptoms you are experiencing, an audiologist may choose to do one or all of these tests. Below are the most common types of audiological evaluations.

Pure-tone TestingSpeech TestingMiddle Ear TestingOtoacoustic Emissions Testing (OAEs)
This test is used to learn the faintest tone a person can hear at different pitches (or frequencies). Earphones are used so that testing can be done for each ear individually.Speech testing may be done in a quiet or loud environment, since difficulty understanding speech in background noise is fairly common. The test records the faintest speech that can be heard, and then the audiologist records how well words were recognized and repeated back correctly.During this evaluation, the audiologist will perform a tympanometry test, which looks for fluid in the middle ear, perforation (holes) in the eardrum, or wax buildup in the ear canal. They will also take acoustic reflex measures to see if they can pinpoint the possible location of the hearing problem as well as the type of hearing loss.OAEs help audiologists see if there is a blockage in the outer ear canal, or if there are fluids in the middle ear. People with normal hearing produce OAEs, and those with hearing loss greater than 25-30 decibels (dB) do not.

While these are the most common kinds of hearing tests (audiological evaluations), there is one more test that bears mentioning: Thrive by Cognivue. Thrive is a 6-minute computer-based screening that involves watching a screen and moving a joystick. It’s a simple test to take and doesn’t depend on hearing. It is designed to test five main brain functions: memory, your perception of spatial relationships among objects (visuospatial), executive function, reaction time and processing speed.

With all these different tests available, you can rest assured that the diagnosis for your hearing loss will be identified, no matter the severity or cause.

Hearing loss treatments

Treatment for hearing loss depends on the kind of hearing loss one is experiencing, so there is no one-size-fits all approach. Hearing tests are conducted in order to determine the best treatment option for each individual. So, what options are there?

Conductive hearing loss:

Though every person is different, in many cases conductive hearing loss can be addressed in one of three ways: surgery, amplification, or medication.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss:

Sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by a wide variety of factors, which means the treatments can also vary widely. The most common type is irreversible sensorineural hearing loss, which can be managed with hearing aids. In severe cases, cochlear implants may be necessary. If the hearing loss is sudden, it could be considered viral, indicating that treatment with corticosteroids will work. Or if the hearing loss is caused by pressure changes or head trauma, emergency surgery may be required.

Mixed Hearing Loss:

Audiologists will usually start by treating the conductive issue with surgery or medication and then determine how to best address the sensorineural hearing loss.

Hearing Loss Prevention

Because there are many different ways of experiencing hearing loss, the methods of preventing it will also vary. Though you may not be able to completely prevent hearing loss, you can take steps to protect yourself. Here are a few tips we suggest you follow to protect your hearing as much as possible:

  • Wear hearing protection
  • Move away from noise sources, such as speakers
  • Visit noisy establishments during their slower times
  • Download a smartphone app to monitor noise levels
  • Learn about a location’s noise level before visiting via online reviews
  • Ask managers to reduce the volume in restaurants, cafes, etc.
  • Leave a location immediately if you feel any pain or ringing in your ears

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and ask for what you need. Your hearing is vital for your quality of life and being proactive about how you care for your ears can go a long way in protecting yourself from unnecessary harm.

Hidden dangers of untreated hearing loss

Untreated hearing loss can impact both your physical and mental well-being. In fact, brain scans have even shown that hearing loss can speed up the process of the brain’s deterioration (atrophy). Good hearing helps with walking and balance, which means that hearing loss can lead to frequent falls.

When untreated, hearing loss can advance to social isolation and even depression. Why? As communication becomes harder and more frustrating, those experiencing hearing loss withdraw more and more, leading to loneliness and isolation. Studies have also shown that severely impaired hearing is five times more likely to cause dementia. Finally, hearing loss could also give rise to tinnitus, a ringing of the ears, which can have a severe impact on sleep and concentration, leading to fatigue.