Hearing Loss

Treatment and Research

Your doctor can recommend strategies to help reduce the effects of a hearing loss. Scientists are studying ways to develop new, more effective methods to treat and prevent hearing loss.

Hearing Aids

A hearing aid is a small electronic device that you wear in or behind your ear. It makes some sounds louder so that a person with hearing loss can listen, communicate, and participate more fully in daily activities. A hearing aid can help people hear more in both quiet and noisy situations. However, only about one out of five people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one.

A hearing aid has three basic parts: a microphone, amplifier, and speaker. The hearing aid receives sound through a microphone, which converts the sound waves to electrical signals and sends them to an amplifier. The amplifier increases the power of the signals and then sends them to the ear through a speaker.

Types of Hearing Aids

There are a number of different types of hearing aids to treat different kinds of hearing loss. Choosing one will depend on the kind of hearing loss you have, you lifestyle, and your own preferences.

  • Behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids consist of a hard plastic case worn behind the ear and connected to a plastic earmold that fits inside the outer ear. The electronic parts are held in the case behind the ear. Sound travels from the hearing aid through the earmold and into the ear. BTE aids are used by people of all ages for mild to profound hearing loss.
  • Open-fit hearing aids fit completely behind the ear with only a narrow tube inserted into the ear canal. This lets the ear canal remain open. Open-fit hearing aids may be a good choice for people with a buildup of earwax since this type of aid is less likely to be damaged by earwax. Some people may prefer the open-fit hearing aid because they do not perceive their voice as sounding “plugged up.”
  • In-the-ear hearing aids fit completely inside the outer ear. The case holding the electronic components is made of hard plastic. Some in-the-ear hearing aids may also use a telecoil, which is a small magnetic coil that allows you to receive sound through the circuitry of the hearing aid, rather than through the microphone. You can use the telecoil when you use the telephone and when you are in public places that have installed induction loop systems, such as churches, schools, airports, and auditoriums.
  • Canal hearing aids fit into the ear canal and are available in two styles. The in-the-canal hearing aid is made to fit the size and shape of your ear canal. A completely-in-canal hearing aid is nearly hidden in the ear canal. Both types are used for mild to moderately severe hearing loss. Because they are small, canal aids may be difficult for a person to adjust and remove. In addition, canal aids have less space available for batteries and additional devices, such as a telecoil. They usually are not recommended for people with severe to profound hearing loss because their reduced size limits their power and volume.

An audiologist or hearing aid specialist can help you determine if a hearing aid, or even two hearing aids, is the right treatment for you. Wearing two hearing aids may help balance sounds, improve your understanding of words in noisy situations, and make it easier to locate the source of sounds.

Cochlear Implants

If your hearing loss is severe and of a certain type, your doctor may suggest that you talk to an otolaryngologist—a surgeon who specializes in ear, nose, and throat diseases—about a cochlear implant.

A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that the surgeon places under the skin and behind the ear. The device picks up sounds, changes them to electrical signals, and sends them past the non-working part of the inner ear and on to the brain.

A cochlear implant does not restore or create normal hearing. Instead, it can help people who are deaf or who have a severe hearing loss be more aware of their surroundings and understand speech, sometimes well enough to use the telephone. Learning to interpret sounds from the implant takes time and practice. A speech-language pathologist and audiologist can help you with this part of the process.

Assistive Listening Devices

Assistive listening devices devices can help you hear in certain listening environments. These can include telephone and cell phone amplifying devices, smart phone or tablet "apps," and closed circuit systems (induction coil loops) in places of worship, theaters, and auditoriums. TV listening systems help you listen to the television or the radio without being bothered by other noises around you. Some hearing aids can be plugged into televisions or stereos to help you hear better.

New and Improved Treatments Under Study

Researchers are studying the causes of hearing loss as well as new treatments. For example, they are studying ways to improve hearing aids so that wearers can hear certain sounds more clearly even when a person is surrounded by background noise.

They are also studying how to improve cochlear implants to enhance a person's ability to understand sounds. And they are conducting a study on twins aged 50 and over to determine the extent to which age-related hearing loss runs in families.