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Hearing Aid Basics

what you need to know about hearing aids

By

Updated June 29, 2009

There are different types of hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound waves are prevented from passing to the inner ear. This can be caused by a variety of problems including buildup of earwax (cerumen), infection, fluid in the middle ear (ear infection or otitis media), or a punctured eardrum. Sensorineural (nerve) hearing loss develops when the auditory nerve or hair cells in the inner ear are damaged by aging, noise, illness, injury, infection, head trauma, toxic medications, or an inherited condition. Mixed hearing loss is a combination of both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. A conductive hearing loss can often be corrected with medical or surgical treatment, while sensorineural hearing loss usually cannot be reversed.

People with hearing loss may experience some or all of the following problems:

  • Difficulty hearing conversations, especially when there is background noise.
  • Hissing, roaring, or ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
  • Difficulty hearing the television or radio at a normal volume.
  • Fatigue and irritation caused by the effort to hear.
  • Dizziness or problems with balance.

How can I find out if I have hearing loss?

If you think you might have hearing loss, visit your physician, who may refer you to an otolaryngologist or audiologist. An otolaryngologist is a physician who specializes in ear, nose, and throat disorders, and will investigate the cause of the hearing loss. An audiologist is a hearing health professional who identifies and measures hearing loss and will perform a hearing test to assess the type and degree of loss.

How can hearing aids help?

On the basis of the hearing test results, the audiologist can determine whether hearing aids will help. Hearing aids are particularly useful in improving the hearing and speech comprehension of people with sensorineural hearing loss. When choosing a hearing aid, the audiologist will consider your hearing ability, work and home activities, physical limitations, medical conditions, and cosmetic preferences. For many people, cost is also an important factor. You and your audiologist must decide whether one or two hearing aids will be best for you. Wearing two hearing aids may help balance sounds, improve your understanding of words in noisy situations, and make it easier to locate the source of sounds.

What are the different kinds of hearing aids?

There are several types of hearing aids. Each type offers different advantages, depending on its design, levels of amplification, and size. Before purchasing any hearing aid, ask whether it has a warranty that will allow you to try it out. Most manufacturers allow a 30- to 60-day trial period during which aids can be returned for a refund.

There are four basic styles of hearing aids for people with sensorineural hearing loss:

  • In-the-Ear (ITE) hearing aids fit completely in the outer ear and are used for mild to severe hearing loss. The case, which holds the components, is made of hard plastic. ITE aids can accommodate added technical mechanisms such as a telecoil, a small magnetic coil contained in the hearing aid that improves sound transmission during telephone calls. ITE aids can be damaged by earwax and ear drainage, and their small size can cause adjustment problems and feedback. They are not usually worn by children because the casings need to be replaced as the ear grows.
  • Behind-the-Ear (BTE) hearing aids are worn behind the ear and are connected to a plastic earmold that fits inside the outer ear. The components are held in a case behind the ear. Sound travels through the earmold into the ear. BTE aids are used by people of all ages for mild to profound hearing loss. Poorly fitting BTE earmolds may cause feedback, a whistle sound caused by the fit of the hearing aid or by buildup of earwax or fluid.

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