Hearing Well: Many Options Are Available Today for Hearing Loss

Posted: June 2012

There is a one-in-three possibility of suffering from hearing loss.  If you are fortunate enough not to, most likely you know someone who does.  In the United States, experts estimate that approximately 30% of the population suffers from hearing impairment.  For those individuals over 65, nearly 40% have hearing loss.  Thus, the magnitude of the problem cannot be overstated.

The list of causes for hearing loss is lengthy.  More common etiologies include noise (predominantly recreational today), aging (too many birthdays!), infections, trauma, and hereditary. 

The most preventable form of hearing loss is that due to noise exposure.  Most of this occurs outside the workplace since OSHA regulations mandate hearing conversation programs in industries where employees are at risk.  Rock concerts, power tools, noisy household implements (leaf blowers, shop vacuums) are not regulated and therefore pose a threat to those who have such exposure without some form of noise protection. 

Broadly speaking, hearing loss can be categorized as either conductive (middle ear) or sensorineural (nerve, or inner ear).  Generally speaking, conductive hearing loss can be treated quite successfully with microsurgery.  Repair of tympanic membrane (eardrum) perforations, replacement of defective bones of hearing, and eradication of chronic infections are commonplace for most ear specialists (otologists).  Additionally, the bone anchored implant has vastly improved the surgeon’s ability to restore hearing in patients with conductive loss.

For nerve loss, or sensorineural, modern hearing aid technology has enabled virtually all patients (except those with profound loss) to have dramatically improved communication skills.  There is a vast array of these devices available to ear and hearing specialists.  Most of these devices are small, inconspicuous, comfortable, and highly effective. 

For that population of patients whose hearing loss is severe to profound in both ears, and who gain little to no improvement with conventional hearing aids, the cochlear implant may become an option.  If proper testing determines that a patient is a candidate for the cochlear implant, and if the patient elects to be implanted, a sophisticated electrode array is surgically placed into the cochlea.  After the patient has recovered and the surgical site has healed, the device is activated and programmed by experienced audiologists in a process known as mapping.  This is labor intensive requiring a number of visits to the audiology team, so patients must be willing and able to undergo the necessary rehabilitation required for successful use of the device following surgery.

Although normal hearing is not restored, vastly improved sound awareness (as well as improved lip reading skills) is achieved by most implanted patients.  Many have improved word comprehension in noise.  It is rare for the implanted patient not to remark about the life-changing impact of the cochlear implant. 

To be told that there is nothing which can be done for an individual’s hearing loss today is simply not true.  The best place to start the evaluation and potential treatment for a suspected hearing loss is with an experienced professional.

James E. Benecke, Jr., MD, FACS, otologist/neurotologist, is otolaryngology division chief at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. He is board-certified by the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery and is a member of BJC Medical Group of Missouri. For a referral, call 314-996-LIFE.

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