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What are the Different Types of Hearing Loss - And What Can You Do About Them?


Amy Lynch for GBMC

January 6, 2020
Statistics indicate that approximately 48 million Americans — nearly 20% of the U.S. population — currently have some degree of hearing loss. Yet only a small percentage of people who could benefit from wearing a hearing aid actually do.

Types of hearing loss

Hearing loss is classified into two main categories — sensorineural hearing loss, in which the nerve that transmits sound from the ear to the brain isn’t working effectively, and conductive hearing loss, caused by a physical blockage in the ear. A combination of the two is called mixed hearing loss.

“Aging and noise exposure are the main contributing factors to sensorineural hearing loss; conductive hearing loss can result from wax buildup, fluid behind the eardrum and disruption in the ear bones,” explains Brian Kaplan, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC).

Working in professions that involve prolonged exposure to loud noise increases the likelihood of eventual hearing loss; other causes can be linked to genetics, chemotherapy and the use of some medications.

Diagnosis and treatment options

Hearing loss is diagnosed through a physical exam that looks for any obstruction in conjunction with an audiogram to test sensorineural and conductive function as well as eardrum mobility. Approach to treatment depends on what kind of hearing loss the patient is experiencing.

“For sensorineural loss, the standard treatment is hearing aids, until they no longer offer adequate benefit, then we consider cochlear implants,” Dr. Kaplan says. “Conductive hearing loss can usually be corrected through in-office procedures or surgery.”

Latest developments in devices

Like cell phones and computers, hearing aids continue to evolve, shrinking in size thanks to improving technologies. The latest iterations range from basic models to top-of-the-line products that offer sophisticated functions like connectivity to streaming media, phones and smart home systems. Prices can vary from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on the model and features.

“In about 18 months, hearing aids for mild to moderate hearing loss are going to become available over the counter with Apple, Samsung, Bose and other major players entering the market,” Dr. Kaplan adds. “The hope is to raise awareness around the importance of addressing hearing loss, and to make hearing aids more accessible and affordable.”

Although hearing aids aren’t usually covered by Medicare or private insurance policies, financial assistance may be available through the VA and some charitable organizations.

Other ear conditions

Tinnitus, one of the most common health conditions in the U.S. — the sensation of hearing high-pitched ringing, chirping or other noises — affects more than 45 million Americans, according to the American Tinnitus Association.

Often remedied with hearing aids, subjective tinnitus is caused by sensorineural hearing loss and can be exacerbated by anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation and caffeine. More rarely, objective tinnitus is a result of blood-flow abnormalities.

“There’s a constant level of background noise around us all the time; think about how much quieter it gets when your power goes out,” Dr. Kaplan explains. “With hearing loss, you lose the background noise that can sometimes mask tinnitus, and that’s when it often becomes noticeable.”

Eustachian tube dysfunction can also affect ear health, although hearing loss isn’t often a primary symptom. Allergies, sinusitis, nasal swelling and other conditions can make it difficult for the tube to function properly, creating a feeling of fullness, fluid or clogging behind the eardrum.

Tips to prevent hearing loss

Doctors are diagnosing hearing loss in increasingly younger patients, making early prevention efforts more important now than ever before.

“Protect your hearing anytime you’ll be around loud noises — at concerts, mowing the lawn, using power tools — and start as early as you can,” Dr. Kaplan urges. “Once your hearing is gone, you can’t get it back.”
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