Most of us get our eyes checked and visit the dentist regularly, but we don’t give much thought to our hearing until an issue arises. When it does, we might not even be sure where to turn for help.
Signs of hearing loss
If you are experiencing hearing loss, there are several telltale signs. “Sometimes we will see patients who report that they can hear speech but it’s not always clear,” says Dr. Audra Branham. “’I can hear but I don’t always understand’—that is a very common report from patients.”
That’s because there is often a decline in the ability to hear certain frequencies over others. When hearing words, certain sounds within those words might be in the range where your hearing has dropped, so you’re suddenly not picking up those sounds as well. It’s easy to mistake one word for another—first for thirst, for example—or to feel as if speech sounds muffled. It’s actually the most common type of hearing loss that audiologists come across.
Others admit that they have to turn the TV up, that they can’t hear their spouse or that they are asking people to repeat things. “One of the more severe things we see is patients who start to take a step back from being social. They stop doing activities that they love because they’re struggling and becoming embarrassed by not hearing or by answering inappropriately,” she says.
Tinnitus—a sound you hear inside your head—is another sign of hearing loss in many cases. The patient hears a ringing, buzzing, hissing or roaring in the ear that is unique to them, and it can be temporary or permanent. There are many possible causes, such as medications, hearing loss, noise trauma, etc. Tinnitus should be tested by an audiologist and monitored because changes in tinnitus may mean there has been a change in your hearing.
“I have it myself, mine is pretty mild, but we have patients who have very severe tinnitus. It keeps them up at night and they have a hard time functioning during the day,” says Dr. Branham. Thankfully, it can be managed; they can help by essentially training your brain not to notice it so you can go about your daily life and reduce or eliminate the noises.
When to get tested
Dr. Branham recommends patients obtain baseline testing at the age of 50, if they have no other issues beforehand.
Your audiologist would much rather first see you before you get to the point where you need their help. This way, they can develop a plan to ensure success with your hearing further down the road.
“Typically, we don’t initially see patients for testing until there is some sort of problem, but ideally, we would have baseline testing done at a point when hearing is normal, or a loss is just starting to develop. That helps us track your hearing status over time better and predict future trends,” she says.
Patients often worry that when they come into an audiologist’s office, they’ll be told they need hearing aids. A mild hearing loss isn’t something audiologists rush to treat, unless that’s the route the patient finds necessary. They’re more likely to monitor your hearing over years and look for patterns of decline to determine when treatment would be most appropriate.
How to know if your hearing aids are programmed properly
If you are already wearing a hearing aid, Dr. Branham recommends Real Ear Measures (REM) testing. It’s a technologically advanced way to verify that the hearing aid programming is actually meeting each patient’s exact prescription.
It is based on the unique size and shape of each ear canal. “Every ear is unique, like a fingerprint,” she says. “That size and shape being so unique can significantly alter your hearing aid prescription from sound booth test results alone.”
How it works is that an audiologist places a tiny microphone into the ear canal between the hearing aid and the ear drum; it allows them to see which sounds patients are getting from the aid. They can then make instant and accurate adjustments in real time.
The results are immediate and ensure that patients receive the best outcome. In fact, REM has become the gold standard in best practices when fitting hearing aids. The methodology is far superior to simply testing a hearing aid in a lab, which only measures what it’s doing out in the air. Once it’s placed into a patient’s ear, sound has to bounce through the ear canal to get to the ear drum; these acoustics have changed the prescription. “You may be getting too much of some frequencies and not enough of others because of the way your ear canals are shaped,” the doctor explains.
Although they’ve only had this test for several years, it has made a significant impact. It is now something the audiologists complete every time they fit a new hearing aid on someone and any time there is a change in someone’s hearing status. It can also be done with any hearing aid, no matter where it was purchased.
Before this test came along, audiologists had to rely on patients’ subjective answers; now they can objectively verify how the hearing aid is performing. It is a much more relaxing experience for the patient. Dr. Branham can make instant, accurate adjustments and it’s done in one visit.
“You can have the most expensive devices on your ears, but if the programming isn’t completed by an audiologist with Real Ear Measures to ensure accuracy, you’re likely not going to find the success you’re looking for,” she says.
Her last bit of advice? Communicate any concerns you have immediately because most issues are very easily fixed in the office quite quickly. Any audiologist’s office is well equipped with many materials to be able to repair, correct and program any issues that come up.
Most people put off concerns for a while before coming into the office—and most are resolved in minutes. They’ll say, “Wow, I should have done that sooner.”
Hearing Innovations is celebrating 40 years in business and just received the 2021 Best of Youngstown Award for Audiology. For more information, visit Hearing Innovations or call 330-726-8155.