More than 32 million Americans have significant hearing loss, yet only a fraction of that number have ever had their hearing tested by a board certified audiologist. Everyone over 25 should have a baseline audiogram. Consider this fact: 17% of all those involved in motor vehicle accidents will have resultant permanent sensorineural hearing loss. However, if you’ve never had a valid hearing evaluation, you’d be hard-pressed to show that your hearing was normal prior to such an accident.
A thorough hearing test is the first step in determining if you do, in fact, have hearing loss. The hearing test results also allow your audiologist to recommend the best treatment options if you do, in fact, have a hearing loss. A hearing test is a quick, painless, and non-invasive test, and it should always be performed by a licensed, board certified audiologist. Ask to see the credentials of those who will be doing your testing! As with most healthcare professionals, credentialed individuals have the greatest amount of educational training in diagnosis and treatment of hearing impairment, and they will offer you or your loved ones solutions that reflect their knowledge base.
The test begins with a thorough case history, which reviews specific health information that could provide insight into hearing loss causes, and will assist in determining which tests should be performed. Following the case history, the audiologist will examine your ear canals and eardrums with a special light called an otoscope. Your middle ear function will also be assessed by a test called tympanometry, which offers insight regarding the status of the area behind your eardrum. This area cannot be easily seen, and so the tympangram offers valuable information to the examiner. The test involves a pressure change, and it might replicate the feeling you experience while going up in an elevator, but is not painful in any way.
Next, the levels of hearing in each of your ears should be measured in a sound-treated test booth. Some hearing aid technicians don’t use this type of equipment, but be wary of any hearing test that is not conducted in such a booth, as reliability could be seriously compromised. During this test, a series of tones of different pitches and speech signals are presented to each ear through headphones. You will be asked to respond to the signals by either pushing a button, raising your hand or in the case of speech signals, repeating what you heard. You will be asked to respond to the lowest level that you can hear, which determines your hearing thresholds. Thresholds for each pitch and ear are plotted on a graph called an audiogram. These thresholds indicate the level at which you are just barely able to detect sound. The speech testing yields a word recognition score, which is important in determining in part how well you will perform with hearing aids, which listening situations will be most challenging, etc.
Further tests may be conducted during the hearing test. Your ability to understand words or sentences at different volume levels or in the presence of noise may be assessed to determine how clearly you hear speech in various conditions. Following the tests, the hearing professional will discuss the results with you and may provide further recommendations, including treatment options, like hearing aids.
If you suspect you have hearing loss, it is important to have your hearing tested as soon as possible. The use-it-or-lose-it principle does apply to our hearing; the sooner you treat hearing loss, the better the outcome of treatment. Most people wait an average of seven years from the time they suspect they have hearing loss until they purchase hearing devices. During that time period, the auditory system is at extreme risk for auditory deprivation, or lack of stimulation due to insufficient volume. This can make a difficult situation worse than it really needs to be. So why wait? Have a board certified audiologist evaluate your hearing as soon as you (or others!) suspect there might be a hearing loss.