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Hearing Tests

A hearing (audiometric) test is part of an ear examination that evaluates a person's ability to hear by measuring the ability of sound to reach the brain.

The sounds we hear start as vibrations of air, fluid, and solid materials in our environment. The vibrations produce sound waves, which vibrate at a certain speed (frequency) and have a certain height (amplitude). The vibration speed of a sound wave determines how high or low a sound is (pitch). The height of the sound wave determines how loud the sound is (volume).

Hearing happens when these sound waves travel through the ear and are turned into nerve impulses. These nerve impulses are sent to the brain, which "hears" them.

  • Sound waves enter the ear camera.gif through the ear canal (external ear) and strike the eardrum (tympanic membrane), which separates the ear canal and the middle ear.
  • The eardrum vibrates, and the vibrations move to the bones of the middle ear. In response, the bones of the middle ear vibrate, magnifying the sound and sending it to the inner ear.
  • The fluid-filled, curved space of the inner ear, sometimes called the labyrinth, contains the main sensory organ of hearing, the cochlea. Sound vibrations cause the fluid in the inner ear to move, which bends tiny hair cells (cilia) in the cochlea. The movement of the hair cells creates nerve impulses, which travel along the cochlear (auditory, or eighth cranial) nerve to the brain and are interpreted as sound.

Hearing tests help determine what kind of hearing loss you have by measuring your ability to hear sounds that reach the inner ear through the ear canal (air-conducted sounds) and sounds transmitted through the skull (bone-conducted sounds).

Most hearing tests ask you to respond to a series of tones or words. But there are some hearing tests that do not require a response.

Why It Is Done

Hearing tests may be done:

  • To screen babies and young children for hearing problems that might interfere with their ability to learn, speak, or understand language. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all newborns be screened for hearing loss.1 All 50 states require newborn hearing tests for all babies born in hospitals. Also, many health organizations and doctors' groups recommend routine screening. Talk to your doctor about whether your child has been or should be tested.
  • To screen children and teens for hearing loss. Hearing should be checked by a doctor at each well-child visit. In children, normal hearing is important for proper language development. Some speech, behavior, and learning problems in children can be related to problems with hearing. For this reason, many schools routinely provide hearing tests when children first begin school. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a formal hearing test at ages 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10 years. 2
  • To evaluate possible hearing loss in anyone who has noticed a persistent hearing problem in one or both ears or has had difficulty understanding words in conversation.
  • To screen for hearing problems in older adults. Hearing loss in older adults is often mistaken for diminished mental capacity (for instance, if the person does not seem to listen or respond to conversation).
  • To screen for hearing loss in people who are repeatedly exposed to loud noises or who are taking certain antibiotics, such as gentamicin.
  • To find out the type and amount of hearing loss (conductive, sensorineural, or both). In conductive hearing loss, the movement of sound (conduction) is blocked or does not pass into the inner ear. In sensorineural hearing loss, sound reaches the inner ear, but a problem in the nerves of the ear or, in rare cases, the brain itself prevents proper hearing.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 08, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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