Advances in medicine and technology have led to many new treatments for hearing loss. With so many to choose from, how can you know which one is best for you? The choice depends partly on the kind of loss you have.
- Conductive. This type happens when the outer or middle ear can’t bring sound to the inner ear.
- Sensorineural. This starts when the inner ear, auditory nerve, or brain no longer detects sound waves normally.
- Mixed hearing loss. It's a combination of the conductive and sensorineural kinds.
No matter what type you have, treatments can help you.
Removable Hearing Aids
They make sounds louder and make them easier for the inner ear to pick up. They’re typically either analog or digital.
Analog hearing aids. These convert sound into electrical signals, then make them louder. They work like a microphone plugged into an amplifier. You can program them for different environments, like a small room or a crowded restaurant.
Digital hearing aids. These convert sound into a code of numbers, then change them back into sound. You can program them to amplify only the frequencies where you have hearing loss. In general, digital devices give you more flexibility than the analog kind. But they also cost more.
Both types come in many different models, including:
Behind-the-ear. It's best for mild to severe hearing loss, and it includes a plastic case, which you wear behind your ear. The sound is sent through an ear mold that you put in your outer ear. They’re somewhat large. They’re also powerful.
Open-fit. You wear these behind your ear, too. They relay sound through a narrow tube that you put into your ear canal. Unlike behind-the-ear aids, open-fit aids allow the canal to stay open. Some people prefer them because:
- They don't give you a "plugged-up" feeling.
- They're less prone to damage from earwax.
- They're smaller, which makes them harder to see.
In-the-ear. These model helps mild to severe hearing loss. The parts are so small that they fit completely inside your outer ear. Like some behind-the-ear aids, some in-the-ear aids have a small magnetic coil, called a telecoil. That makes it easier to talk on the phone. They can also pick up signals from systems called induction sound loops in some public places like churches, schools, airports, and auditoriums.
These hearing aids aren't a good idea for young children because their outer ears are still growing.
In-canal. This type is best for mild to moderately severe hearing loss. They’re small enough to fit inside your ear canal. This makes them far less visible than other hearing aids. But their size makes them harder for some people to adjust and remove. They’re also less powerful than larger ones, and they usually can’t fit a telecoil.
Surgically Implanted Hearing Devices
Doctors can put some hearing technologies even farther inside your ear to send more sound vibrations to your inner ear. These options include:
Middle ear implants. A surgeon attaches a small device to one of the bones of your middle ear so it can move them directly, which sends stronger sound vibrations to the inner ear. The implants help people with sensorineural hearing loss.
These implants are one of the newest advances, so it's important to speak to a specialist who has experience putting them in. Because they go in the middle ear, they're almost completely hidden. They also don't cause feedback and can stay in place when you swim or bathe, depending on the type of implant you have.
Bone-anchored hearing aids. These go into the bone behind the ear, where they transmit sound into the inner ear through the skull. Surgical bone conduction aids are either implanted underneath the skin and an externally worn sound processor sends signal directly to the implanted device, or the implant is placed through the skin and the sound processor directly connects to the implant. These devices are usually recommended for people with:
- Hearing loss in one ear (single-sided deafness)
- Problems with the shape of their ear canals
- Conductive or mixed hearing loss with long-term ear infections
Cochlear implants. If the inner ear has severe damage, even the most powerful hearing aid can't restore your hearing. In that case, your doctor may recommend a cochlear implant. These bypass damaged parts of the ear and send signals directly to your auditory nerve that relays sound to the brain. A cochlear implant has a microphone that goes behind the ear and a transmitter that goes under the skin. Sound information goes to electrodes that a doctor puts in your inner ear through surgery.
These implants can help adults who are deaf or severely hearing-impaired. They can also help children with profound hearing loss have better speech and language skills. But it often takes time and practice to interpret the signals they send to the brain.