What? Excuse Me? I Beg Your Pardon?
Do you find yourself using phrases like these in conversation more often than not? If so, you may have some form of hearing loss. You would be in good company, as about 50 million American adults also live with some level of hearing loss. The ear, nose and throat specialists with the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network are dedicated to diagnosing and treating conditions related to hearing loss to improve your quality of life.
“Hearing loss has a tremendous impact on quality of life,” said Michael Harris, MD, neurotologist at Froedtert Hospital. “As patients, many of us don’t take advantage of treatment as early as we should. There is no real advantage to delaying evaluation or treatment for hearing loss; if you are struggling to understand what people are saying to you, early intervention can have a major impact on your life and that of your family.”
What Causes Hearing Loss and When to Seek Help
There can be many reasons for acquired hearing loss, some age- and noise-related, and others related to medical conditions that develop over time. Although it can happen to people at any age, the prevalence of hearing loss increases as people get older. This can be due to inner ear changes throughout life, along with cumulative noise exposure. Wearing ear protection, such as ear plugs or noise-reducing headphones, in loud environments and being aware of your daily and long-term noise consumption can help to prevent or delay hearing loss.
“Although hearing loss is more commonly associated with older people, it can affect people of all ages,” Dr. Harris said. “There is growing concern about noise consumption among young people. They have high exposure to noise from personal listening devices, and they are more likely to listen at volumes that put their hearing at risk.”
An acceptable level of noise consumption can be anywhere from 0 to 70 decibels. The higher the decibels and the louder the exposure time, the more risk to your hearing. For example, common noise consumption might include riding a motorcycle (100 decibels), enjoying a live sporting event (105 decibels) or watching fireworks (145 decibels).
Aging and cumulative noise exposure can affect your understanding of words during person-to-person or phone conversations, your ability to distinguish between speech and ambient noise and your ability to hear your television. These signs of hearing loss are good indications that you should seek care, if you want to improve your hearing or prevent further damage.
In addition to gradually progressive hearing loss associated with age or noise exposure, two abnormal, less common instances of hearing loss demand immediate evaluation by a hearing specialist.
- Sudden Hearing Loss — Sudden loss of hearing in one ear, often accompanied by a ringing sensation or fullness in the ear, can become permanent if you don’t seek help urgently. Hearing loss of this variety may be noted upon waking up or suddenly during the course of the day. Depending on the cause, you may be eligible for a time-sensitive steroid treatment, but there is a narrow window of time to use this treatment effectively.
- One-Sided Hearing Loss — A loss of hearing in one ear can also happen progressively over time as well. Unless there is a known reason for this asymmetry, for example, exposure to an explosion on one side and not the other, one-sided hearing loss warrants further evaluation. Further care may include imaging or other diagnostics to determine the extent of the damage and available treatment.
How Can I Get My Hearing Back?
Whether your hearing loss has developed over time or from an isolated noise exposure incident, the Froedtert & MCW audiology team can help. During your appointment, an audiologist gives you a hearing test to determine the type and severity of your hearing loss. This test will help indicate your treatment options, such as a medical treatment, a hearing aid, or a variety of surgically implanted devices, such as a cochlear implant.
Hearing aids are sometimes unfairly stigmatized, but can significantly improve your hearing and quality of life. They have advanced in both aesthetic and technological aspects, as they are now smaller than in the past and can automatically monitor the wearer’s listening environment and change sensitivity level settings on their own. In addition, some hearing aids are Bluetooth compatible and can act like headphones when synced to a personal music device.
While hearing aids are not usually covered by insurance and are paid for out-of-pocket, recent federal legislation could eventually make hearing aids more accessible and affordable. In the coming years, they may be available over-the-counter at dramatically reduced prices.
Cochlear implants are for people who have hearing loss that is beyond the helping capability of a hearing aid. If you’re still struggling to understand speech with a hearing aid, you may be a candidate for a cochlear implant. The implant involves surgery under general anesthesia and is typically performed as an outpatient procedure for adults. Bone is removed to access the cochlea, or hearing organ, where an electrode is placed. That electrode is attached to a receiver-stimulator that stays inside the body. About three weeks later, an external speech processor is placed behind the ear, where it collects sound and transmits it by radio wave through the skin to the internal implants.
“A cochlear implant is fundamentally different than a hearing aid, in that it’s electronic hearing instead of acoustic hearing,” Dr. Harris said. “At Froedtert Hospital we implant over 150 cochlear implants annually. They are the standard of care for hearing loss that is beyond the capabilities of a hearing aid.”
Other Conditions Related to Hearing Loss
Because balance is controlled by the vestibular system within the inner ear, dizziness and balance issues can co-occur with hearing loss. Specifically, vertigo is room-spinning dizziness that originates from an inner ear issue and may also occur alongside hearing loss in some situations. If you experience this type of dizziness, seeking medical attention is recommended.
Tinnitus, or ringing in the ear, is another condition that is intimately related to hearing loss. It is a sensation that arises from the brain, rather than directly from the ear itself. “Tinnitus can be thought of as comparable to ‘phantom limb pain,’ whereby someone who has lost a leg may still feel an itch or other sensation on the absent foot,” Dr. Harris said. “Tinnitus is similar in that the brain generates its own sounds (the ringing sensation) as a response to the absence of adequate input from the ear.”
In some cases, tinnitus can be improved with a hearing aid or cochlear implant, which restores input to the brain and gives it something to listen to, stopping or decreasing the ringing sound. Audiologists at Froedtert Hospital also offer a tinnitus retraining program. This program utilizes sound, relaxation, and cognitive behavioral therapies to help separate the ringing sound from the associated emotional reaction and help you learn to live with tinnitus.
“Even though there are significant unanswered questions about the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline, recognition of the association between the two adds emphasis to the idea that hearing loss shouldn’t be put off or ignored,” Dr. Harris said.
Composed of audiologists, speech language pathologists, otolaryngologists, laryngologists and nurse practitioners, among others, the audiology team is focused on identifying the severity of and treating hearing loss, while mitigating other potential conditions. If you think you are experiencing any level of hearing loss, call 414-777-7700 or request an appointment online today.