When a patient comes to my office to seek help, they often ask if there is a way to restore their hearing. Unfortunately, most people who have hearing loss aren’t able to take medication or have surgery to fix their hearing. In order to figure out a treatment plan, we must conduct a series of tests to find the type and severity of the hearing loss as well as visually inspect the ear canal and eardrum. Before we perform testing, a brief medical history of our patients in conjunction with their hearing test results can help us determine the cause of the hearing loss. The hearing history of our patients can be very important and help us determine if an immediate referral or surgery could be a possible choice.
If restoring hearing is our objective, we first have to perform testing to determine the type of hearing loss you have. Before the test, we look in your ears with an otoscope to visually inspect the ear canal and eardrum. This will help us determine if you have any physical reason for the loss (ear infection, ruptured eardrum, wax impaction, etc.). After the visual observation, we conduct tympanometry testing on the eardrum and contralateral reflexes. This will help us determine if the eardrum is moving correctly and measure the functionality of the middle ear. This is followed by air conduction hearing testing, bone conduction hearing testing, speech recognition testing and noise in background testing. Compiling these results and combining them with the patient’s history will help us determine the best course of action.
Why do I have hearing loss?
There are many different reasons why we have hearing loss, but there are only three types of loss for the purpose of this discussion. There is sensorineural hearing loss, conductive hearing loss and mixed hearing loss, a combination of both types. Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when the hearing loss is isolated to the patient’s inner ear, which consists of tens of thousands of hair cells that react to sounds through movement. After years of abuse, loud sound exposure or prescription medication use, these hair cells can break down and many will go away. This requires sounds to be louder to stimulate the hair cells and tell the brain what they are hearing. Patients with a conductive loss have a physical component not working correctly, a perforated eardrum, disarticulated middle ear bones or growth on the bones, broken bones in the middle ear, wax impaction, etc.
How is hearing loss treated?
The severity of hearing loss can play a crucial role in determining how to treat hearing loss. If someone has a mild conductive hearing loss they are not typically considered a surgical candidate, but if they have a moderate or severe conductive loss, they might benefit from surgery. Determining the type and severity of hearing loss will help determine which treatment the patient will benefit from most. Restoring hearing for sensorineural hearing loss is considerably more difficult. We do not have the ability to perform surgery to fix hair cells at this time, but if the severity is severe to profound and our speech understanding is poor, the patient may be eligible for a cochlear implant. This doesn’t “fix” hearing, but utilizes electrical signals to help you process the sounds you are missing. This is not a small step and should only be considered after performing more testing as well as trying out hearing aids. Most surgeons require the patient to wear hearing aids for at least three months before performing testing to determine candidacy.
Restoring someone’s hearing may involve making physical changes to the ears or aiding the loss so they are able to hear adequately enough to participate and communicate effectively. If you are not a surgical candidate and your problem isn’t temporary, such as earwax or head congestion, then hearing aids may be the only option for you. Hearing aids are not what they used to be; today’s models are available in a wide variety of sizes, styles and options. Studies reveal that 81 percent of people who use hearing aids are satisfied with their results.
So, can hearing loss be restored?
There is a small percentage of people who have a particular hearing loss where surgery is an effective option in restoring their hearing. For most people, assistive devices (hearing aids) are the only option. Visit your local audiologist to ensure you have all the correct testing done to determine your best course of action. Be sure to research your provider in advance, whether you are getting hearing aids or undergoing surgery. Stick to professionals you trust when seeking hearing services.
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