According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, 15 percent of the US population has some type of hearing loss. If you’re one of the tens of millions experiencing hearing problems, don’t despair. Every year, medical science is producing new treatments for hearing loss that offer hope for the hearing impaired.
This guide will cover surgery, hearing aids, cochlear implants, assistive listening devices, and other hearing loss treatment options.
What Are Your Options for Hearing Loss Treatment?
The course of hearing loss treatment depends on the cause of hearing loss you are experiencing and type. Some hearing loss may be reversed by treating the underlying condition.
Other forms of hearing loss are permanent and progressive. However, the impact of irreversible hearing impairment can still be reduced through treatment.
Hearing loss is classified broadly based on the part of the ear affected. The two main types are sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss. Let’s take a close look at the treatment options for each.
Treating Conductive Hearing Loss
This type of hearing loss occurs when there is a problem in the outer ear or the middle ear that prevents the transmission of sound waves to the inner ear. This could be a blockage in the ear canal or a physical defect in the outer or middle ear.
Most forms of conductive hearing loss are reversible.
Flush Out Earwax Impactions
One of the most common kinds of conductive hearing loss is a blockage caused by an impaction of wax in the ear canal. This type of hearing loss is temporary and usually affects only one ear. In most cases, you can treat this at home by using over-the-counter ear drops to break up the wax and warm water to flush it out.
If these steps don’t work, you’ll need to go to a doctor and have the earwax removed using suction or other specialized tools.
Avoid using cotton swabs or candles because these methods may harm your middle ear.
Treat Ear Infections
Inflammation or fluid buildup due to viral, bacterial, or fungal infections may cause sudden hearing loss in one ear or both. A doctor can typically reverse this type of hearing loss by prescribing appropriate medication for the infection and draining excess fluid if necessary.
Don’t delay treatment thinking the condition will go away. Untreated ear infections can lead to permanent hearing loss or deafness.
While minor forms of conductive hearing loss can be treated medically or dealt with using over-the-counter remedies, chronic and severe hearing loss cases may require surgical procedures.
Examples of conductive hearing loss that may require corrective surgery include:
- Ruptured eardrum: The tympanic membrane will often heal on its own, but severe trauma to the eardrum may require surgical reconstruction
- Defects of the outer ear: Outer ear damage or genetic deformities can be corrected by reconstructing the affected parts.
- Otosclerosis or ossicle abnormalities: Ossicles, the bones inside the middle ear, can harden or become damaged, requiring a middle ear implant that allows sound to bypass them. Damaged ossicles can also be surgically reconstructed.
- Chronic ear infections: Patients with fluid blockage caused by long-term ear infections can have pressure equalization tubes implanted to allow air into the middle ear.
- Deformed or damaged ear canal: If the ear canal is malformed due to trauma or genetics, it can be reconstructed to let sound pass unimpeded.
Treating Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by damage to the sensitive parts of the inner ear or the auditory nerve that transmits information about the sounds you hear to the brain.
Depending on the cause, some forms of sensorineural hearing loss may be reversed by medical treatment of the health condition causing it.
Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss
If sudden hearing loss occurs and all conductive causes can be ruled out, the culprit is likely a viral infection. Hearing health experts consider sudden sensorineural hearing loss an emergency and will treat the condition with corticosteroids to prevent permanent damage.
Barometric or Head Trauma
Divers and pilots who experience sudden changes in pressure can cause a leakage of fluid that is harmful to the inner ear. Head trauma can have the same effect. In some instances, this can be reversed via surgery.
Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease
The body’s immune system can sometimes malfunction, causing it to attack parts of the inner ear.
This condition presents as progressive bilateral hearing loss and is managed with corticosteroids or other drugs.
A balance disorder caused by an inability to regulate fluid in the inner ear, Meniere’s disease manifests as fluctuating hearing loss accompanied by vertigo and tinnitus. This disorder can often be treated with a combination of the following:
- Low-sodium diet
If basic medical treatments aren’t effective, doctors may recommend surgery.
More than 750 medications are potentially harmful to your ears, including:
- Some cancer drugs
- Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
- Quinine-based antimalarials
Hearing loss caused by a toxic reaction will appear in both ears and can be reversed by discontinuing the medication.
Some chronic neurological and degenerative disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, can cause hearing loss as a secondary symptom. Treating and managing these diseases may cause your hearing loss to improve.
If your hearing problems can’t be addressed with medical treatment or surgery, a hearing aid is your best bet to restore your hearing to some extent and prevent further hearing loss.
Hearing Aid Types
Hearing aids come in various forms and differ in design, function, and amplification technology.
|Behind-the-ear hearing aids (BTE)
|This hearing aid is often used in young children because it can accommodate many types of molds as the child grows. They are easy to clean and sturdy. Most parts of this hearing aid are encased in a small plastic compartment behind the ear. The plastic is connected via tubing to an earpiece.
|On-the-ear hearing aids
|This is a type of BTE hearing aid. It is also known as the mini BTE because it is much smaller. The mini BTE is a modern hearing aid that is an open fit. An almost invisible tube connects the hearing aid to the ear canal. They are preferred because they are less noticeable and uncomfortable.
|In-the-ear hearing aids (ITE)
|These hearing aids can be custom fitted by a hearing specialist within the outer portion of your ear. It is for those with mild to moderate hearing loss. The whole hearing aid is encased in a shell that sits on your outer ear.
|In-the-canal hearing aids (ITC) and completely-in-the-canal hearing aids (CIC)
|As their names suggest, these hearing aids fit entirely or mostly inside your ear canal. ITC and CIC hearing aids are an excellent option for cosmetic reasons because they are tiny and hardly visible. They are a good hearing aid choice for those with severe hearing loss.
|Bone-anchored hearing aids (BAHA)
|This type of hearing aid effectively treats irreversible conductive hearing loss. A surgeon places an implant in the bone behind the ear, and a hearing aid is fitted over it. The implant sends vibrations across the bone to the inner ear when it detects sounds. A bone-anchored hearing aid is ideal for those with at least one functioning inner ear. It can restore hearing and improve your quality of life.
Hearing Aid Technologies
Hearing aids can be further classified based on the type of amplification technologies they use:
- Analog hearing aids convert sound energy into electrical energy and make the sounds louder. They’re also known as conventional hearing aids. They can be customized and programmed based on the results of your hearing tests to highlight specific frequencies if you have trouble hearing low-frequency or high-pitched sounds.
- Digital hearing aids convert sound into code and then back into sound. They have advanced computer chips to analyze and differentiate speech from background noise. They deliver complex sounds better and can store multiple custom program settings. Most audiologists exclusively recommend digital hearing aids today.
Hearing Aid Features
Not all hearing aids work the same. Some more affordable models only have the basic functionality, which should work just fine for those with moderate hearing loss.
However, if you have severe symptoms or specific hearing impairment, you might need to pay for some additional features to get the best results.
Here are a few special features found in some hearing aids:
- Directional microphone: Hearing aids with a directional microphone help you hear sounds and conversations in noisy places. They amplify sound waves from a particular direction or source.
- T-coil: These hearing aids let you switch from the standard microphone to the “T-coil” setting for telephone conversations. Enabling T-coil filters out the background noise so that only sounds from the telephone are amplified.
- Direct audio input: This feature lets you plug a remote microphone or an FM assistive listening system into your TV, computer, smartphone, or stereo.
- Feedback suppression: This feature suppresses high-pitched noises when a hearing aid gets too close to a sound source.
When hearing loss can’t be addressed through hearing aids, cochlear implants are the only option. Once hearing impairment caused by age-related hearing loss or other forms of irreversible hearing loss progresses to a certain point, hearing aids will no longer help.
If you have severe hearing loss and other treatments aren’t working, ask an audiologist if you might be a good candidate for cochlear implants.
What is a Cochlear Implant?
Unlike hearing aids, cochlear implants do not work by amplifying sound. Often called a “bionic ear,” a cochlear implant bypasses the damaged part of the outer or middle ear to stimulate the auditory nerve directly.
A portion of the cochlear implant is surgically placed inside the mechanism of the inner ear, where it sends electrical signals to the hearing nerve.
Components of a Cochlear Implant
Cochlear implants have two parts. The outer part looks like a conventional hearing aid and sits behind the ear, while the implant is surgically inserted inside the inner ear. Cochlear implants have the same fundamental components:
- Microphone: All cochlear implants have a microphone that picks up external sounds.
- Speech processor: This component can convert sound from the microphone into electrical signals.
- Electrode array: Implanted in the cochlea inside the inner ear, the electrode array transmits the converted sounds to the auditory nerve.
Hearing Assistive Technology
People with profound hearing loss can turn to assistive technologies. Assistive listening devices are everywhere now, at churches, public transport and most government buildings.
Here are some devices that can help you live with hearing loss.
Frequency modulation is a system for wirelessly delivering sound. Any person with a frequency modulator installed can transmit sound directly to your hearing aid.
This is for large areas. Here an induction wire is placed under the floor or the ceiling. When sound is detected, it goes through the wire connected to a microphone. Thanks to the wire, the hearing aids pick up these electrical sound signals via a magnetic field.
Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf (TDD)
TDD provides a visual readout of a telephone conversation for those who cannot hear, speak or have other communication disorders. A human relay operator will place the call to a person with normal hearing and type out the things they say and verbally relay your responses.
Two types of telecommunication relay services exist:
- Voice carry-over (VCO)
- Hearing carry-over (HCO)
There are also portable or built-in telephone amplifiers that can increase the call volume.
Captioning services display captions of the words on a television screen. These accompany the audio segment of the program. Hearing-impaired viewers can read the captions. These captions also describe sound effects in some cases.
There are specialized alert systems designed for people with hearing loss that use flashing signals or other visual cues, vibrations and loud tones. Examples include:
- Alarm clocks
- Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
- Fire detectors
- Doorbell signalers
- Phone signalers
- Smart bracelets
Other Ways to Adapt to Hearing Loss
When treatments for hearing fall short, there are a few things you can try to reduce the impact of hearing impairment on your quality of life.
Speechreading is a communicative strategy for those with hearing impairment. It involves studying the movement of the lips, jaw, teeth, and tongue movements to understand speech. You can study a person’s gestures, postures, facial expressions, and hand movements.
Also known as tactile lipreading, Tadoma is primarily for people who are deaf and blind. It involves placing the fingers on the jaw, lip, or neck to feel the vibrations of the vocal cords. It’s hard to learn and it’s mainly for people who had normal hearing in the past who developed hearing loss.
Print on Palm
Also known as handwriting, print on palm is where a person with hearing loss writes the letters on another person’s palm with their finger to convey what they’re trying to say. There are other forms of learning like the Lorm alphabet and tactile fingerspelling.
Hearing loss treatment depends on the type, cause and severity. While some forms of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss are reversible through medical treatments and surgery, other types are progressive and irreversible, like age-related hearing loss
In many cases, permanent hearing loss can be corrected through hearing aids. However, when a hearing aid won’t do the trick, people with profound hearing loss may consider cochlear implants. When all else fails, you can turn to assistive listening devices or alternative skills to help maintain your quality of life.