How hearing impairment is treated will depend on the underlying cause of the condition. For people with sensorineural hearing loss, the condition is permanent.
This is because once the sensitive hair cells in the cochlea (the coiled, spiral tube inside the inner ear) are damaged, they cannot be repaired and remain damaged for the rest of a person’s life.
However, if your hearing is impaired, various treatment methods can improve your quality of life.
If you have a hearing impairment, you may be able to wear a hearing aid. A hearing aid does not cure a hearing impairment, but it increases the volume of sound entering your ear so that you may be able to hear things more clearly.
A hearing aid is an electronic device that consists of:
- a microphone
- an amplifier
- a loudspeaker
- a battery
Modern hearing aids are very small and discreet and can be worn inside your ear. The microphone picks up sound which is made louder by the amplifier. Hearing aids are fitted with devices that can distinguish between background noise, such as traffic, and foreground noise, such as conversation.
Hearing aids are not suitable for everyone. For example, they may not be effective if you have a profound hearing impairment. Your GP or audiologist (hearing specialist) will be able to advise you about whether a hearing aid is suitable for you.
If a hearing aid is recommended for you, an audiologist will take an impression of your ear so that the hearing aid will fit you perfectly. The hearing aid will be adjusted to suit your level of hearing impairment. You will also be shown how to use and care for it.
After your hearing aid has been fitted, you will have a follow-up appointment three months later.
Instead of having moving parts, digital hearing aids contain a very small computer that processes sounds. This enables the hearing aid to be programmed to suit different environments, such as a small quiet room or a large, noisy workshop.
Bone conduction hearing aids
Bone conduction hearing aids are recommended for people with conductive hearing loss or for those who can’t wear a more conventional type of hearing aid. Bone conduction hearing aids vibrate in response to the sounds going into the microphone.
The part of the hearing aid that vibrates is held against the bone behind the ear (mastoid) by a headband. The vibrations pass through the mastoid bone to the cochlea and are converted into sound in the usual way. They can be very effective but can be painful to wear for long periods.
Bone Anchored Hearing Aids (BAHA)
A bone anchored hearing aid requires an operation. A pedestal is screwed into the bone behind the ear and sticks through the skin to allow a hearing aid to be clipped on and off the pedestal. It is worn during the day and removed at night.
Unlike a bone conduction hearing aid it is not uncomfortable to wear and it is used for patients with conductive hearing loss, or in some patients who have no hearing in one of their ears.
Cochlear implants are small hearing devices that are fitted behind your ear during surgery.
They have an external sound processor and internal parts including a receiver coil, an electronics package and a long wire with electrodes on it (an electrode array). The electrode array is fed into the cochlea and stimulates the hearing nerve. The processor takes in sound, analyses it and then converts it to signals which are transmitted along the electrode array into the cochlea. This means that cochlear implants are only suitable for people whose hearing nerves are functioning normally.
A cochlear implant is sometimes recommended for adults or children who have profound sensorineural hearing loss in both ears which is not helped by hearing aids.
Both ears are usually implanted for children whereas adults are often only able to have one cochlear implant.
Before a cochlear implant is recommended, you will be assessed to find out whether it will help improve your hearing. During the assessment, any disabilities or communication problems that you have will be taken into consideration, which may mean that the usual hearing tests are not suitable.
If a cochlear implant is recommended, it will be inserted into your ear (or both ears) during an operation and will be switched on a few weeks later.
Australian Sign Language (Auslan)
Sometimes, hearing impairment can affect your speech as well as your ability to understand other people. Many people with a hearing impairment learn to communicate in other ways instead of, or as well as, using spoken English.
For people who experience hearing loss after they have learnt to talk, lip-reading can be a very useful skill. Lip-reading is where you watch a person’s mouth movements while they are speaking in order to understand what they are saying.
For people who are born with a hearing impairment, lip-reading is much more difficult. Those who are born with a hearing impairment often learn sign language, which is a form of communication that uses hand movements and facial expressions to convey meaning.
Auslan is completely different from spoken English and has its own grammar and syntax (word order).