What is a hearing impairment and how can it be treated?

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Hearing impairments occur when there is a problem with one or more parts of the ears, the nerves coming from the ears, or the part of the brain that controls hearing. Someone with a hearing impairment, also known as hearing loss, might be able to hear some noises and sounds or nothing at all.

Key points

  • Hearing loss can have a significant impact on independence and the ability to communicate

  • Most people experience some form of hearing loss as they get older

  • Assistive devices such as hearing aids can help people with hearing impairments

Hearing impairment, hearing loss, or deafness refers to the partial or total inability to hear speech and sounds. Impairments can range from mild to severe and can affect anyone at any age. Some types of hearing impairments are temporary and some are permanent.

Some people with mild deafness may have problems understanding speech, particularly if there’s a lot of noise around, while those with moderate hearing impairments may need a hearing aid. Those who have severe hearing impairments may hear little to no sounds and rely on lip-reading and sign language to communicate.

The differences in hearing loss severity

The severity of hearing impairment is determined by how loud a noise needs to be before a person with hearing loss can detect a sound. There are four levels of deafness:

Mild deafness or mild hearing impairment

Someone with this level of impairment may find it hard to understand the words of other people and have reduced capacity to hear sounds in the same way as other people, particularly in spaces with a lot of background noise.

Moderate deafness or moderate hearing impairment

A person with moderate hearing impairments may find it difficult to follow a conversation by relying on hearing alone without a hearing aid.

Severe deafness

A person with severe deafness must either lip-read or use sign language in order to communicate, even with a hearing aid.

Profound deafness

Anyone who has profound deafness has a total lack of hearing and is unable to detect sound at all.

What causes hearing impairment?

Hearing loss can be caused by a range of factors. These can include:

  • Years of exposure to noise, particularly for people who work in loud environments, such as live music venues, mining, construction or farming

  • Listening to very loud music with headphones

  • Some ear infections or head injuries

  • Exposure to certain chemicals or medications such as aspirin, antibiotics and some cancer drugs

Loud noises contribute to almost 40 percent of all hearing impairments. Other causes include blockage, accident, illness, chemical abuse or damage to the ear, cochlea or hearing nerve.

Nearly everybody finds their hearing gets worse as they age. In some cases, genetics play a part. Hearing impairments that happen at birth are called ‘congenital’ hearing impairments whereas ‘acquired’ hearing impairments develop throughout the course of a lifetime. Over half the population aged between 60 and 70 years old experience hearing loss.

Symptoms of hearing loss

The initial signs of hearing impairment can be hard to notice and symptoms might include:

  • Muffled sounds and speech

  • Not being able to understand what is being said, especially when there is background noise or crowds

  • Needing to ask others to speak more slowly, clearly or loudly

  • Having to turn up the volume on your television, radio or phone

  • Withdrawal from or avoidance of conversations and social interactions

  • Ringing in ears

Speak to your General Practitioner (GP) or Audiologist if you suspect you or your child may be experiencing symptoms of hearing loss.

A doctor will ask a number of questions regarding symptoms, when they started, whether they’ve gotten worse and whether there is pain alongside the hearing loss. Hearing loss is then diagnosed with a hearing test performed by an Audiologist.

Types of hearing loss

There are three main types of hearing loss, these include:

Conductive hearing loss

With this type of hearing loss, outside sounds have trouble getting to or through the inside of the ear. This can be caused by middle ear infections, ear wax, punctured eardrum, fluid in the ear, or abnormal bone growth. The condition is usually treatable and is temporary.

Sensorineural hearing loss

Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when the hearing organ (cochlea) and/or nerves in charge of receiving and interpreting sound don’t work properly. Essentially, the ears are unable to send sound signals and messaging to the brain. This condition is usually permanent.

Mixed hearing loss

This is a combination of conductive and sensorineural, will include symptoms of both and may lead to temporary or permanent damage.

One in six Australians experience some form of hearing loss. You can experience difficulties with your hearing at any age, but there are ways to stop hearing loss from getting worse.

What treatments are available?

Hearing impairments may not be able to be reversed, however help that can improve your hearing is available for people with all kinds of hearing loss. Treatment depends on both the cause and severity of deafness.

Hearing aids are wearable devices that assist hearing. They can come in a variety of sizes, and can now be made discreet with designs that fit inside the ear. Modern versions can distinguish background noise from foreground noise. Hearing aids don’t cure deafness but can increase the sound that enters the ear so users can hear more clearly.

Cochlear implants are another option for people with hearing impairments.

Sometimes hearing loss is caused by hair cell damage to the cochlea (the hearing organ) and can be improved with surgery.

Bone conduction implants and personal frequency modulation (FM) systems are also viable options for people with hearing loss wanting to improve their hearing. Some phone apps and other technologies have also been found to help.

How to prevent hearing loss

Hearing problems as a result of problems during birth or by illness or accidents can not be prevented. However, some measures can be taken to reduce the risk of losing some of your hearing over time. These include:

  • Reducing the volume on your TV, radio, music players or toys. Children are especially sensitive to the damaging effects of loud music

  • Use headphones that block out as much external noise as possible rather than drowning it out with higher volumes

  • If you work in a noisy environment, such as nightclubs and pubs, it is recommended you wear earplugs or earmuffs

  • If you go to rock concerts, motor racing, drag racing and other noisy events, wearing earplugs can help reduce the risk of hearing loss at these events

  • You should also be cautious with cotton swabs and not prod them into adult or infant ears, the same applies to Q-tips or tissues

Hearing can often deteriorate with age but the risk can be reduced by taking correct preventive measures early on.

Hearing support and the NDIS

The Hearing Services Program (HSP) and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) fund public hearing services in Australia.

The HSP provides eligible people with subsidised hearing products and services through an accredited hearing services provider. This can include fully subsidised hearing aids, batteries and repairs, as well as further support and hearing services with no additional contribution or annual fee required.

To be eligible for the HSP you need to be an Australian citizen or permanent resident and satisfy the eligibility requirements. To find out if you meet their eligibility criteria visit the HSP’s eligibility checker available on their website. The NDIS may also be able to provide additional hearing supports for participants if they are not available through the HSP.

Your Local Area Coordinator, Early Childhood Partner or planner can help you consider what support might be reasonable and necessary for you.

What do you want to know about hearing impairments? Tell us in the comment section below.

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