Technology Improves Outlook for Patients with Hearing Loss

Image courtesy of UCLA

Major advances in hearing-aid technology and surgical techniques in recent years have significantly improved the outlook for people with hearing loss, according to UCLA experts. But because the success of interventions often depends on how soon hearing loss is addressed, they urge individuals experiencing problems not to delay seeking care.

Hearing loss typically falls into one of two categories, according to Quinton Gopen, M.D., UCLA head-and-neck surgeon. Conductive hearing loss involves a mechanical blockage of sound and generally is repairable; sensory hearing loss is more commonly associated with aging or exposure to loud noises over time.

“There is no surgical therapy for sensory hearing loss unless the hearing deteriorates so dramatically that even hearing aids can’t help,” Dr. Gopen notes. “But unless it gets to that point, hearing aids can offer a great deal of improvement.”

With the shift over the last two decades from analog to digital technology, hearing aids are constantly improving, explains Alison Grimes, AuD, head of the Audiology Clinic at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. The improvements are most notable in several areas, Dr. Grimes says. Directional microphones amplify sound from in front of the user to a greater degree than sound from behind. Hearing aids are increasingly better at distinguishing between speech and noise. And some hearing aids can also be used as wireless receivers to hear telephones and televisions.

Some limitations do remain. “Hearing aids don’t overcome distortion from the inner ear, and they don’t overcome problems with cognitive processing of speech in noisy environments,” says Dr. Grimes. To overcome these problems, people with hearing aids should move away from background noise to the extent that they can, sit closer to the person with whom they’re conversing and learn to lip read as well as possible, Dr. Grimes says. It is also advisable to make sure the communication partner is aware of the hearing problem and to ask that he or she speak slowly and clearly.

For people who are deaf or severely hard of hearing, a surgically implanted electronic device called a cochlear implant may help. The surgery can be highly effective, Dr. Gopen notes, but not when the patient has had profound hearing loss for a long period of time. Similarly, Dr. Gopen says, for patients who experience sudden sensory hearing loss, time is of the essence. “Often, these patients are told that they just have congestion or allergies, and by the time they come to me, a couple of months have gone by and they’ve lost their treatable window,” he says. “Any time there is sudden hearing loss, it’s important to see a specialist right away, just to make sure.”

That also goes for long-term sensory hearing loss and the need for a hearing aid. “Everyone should get a hearing test at 50 and every few years after that,” Dr. Grimes says. “Most of us experience some degree of age-related hearing loss, and the sooner we start to wear a hearing aid, the easier the adjustment is going to be.”

UCLA Adult and Pediatric ENT Clinics in Santa Monica

Four UCLA ear, nose and throat physicians are seeing patients in Santa Monica clinics three-to-four days a week. These physicians see patients with general and specialized ENT problems, including neck and thyroid masses, voice and swallowing complaints, and nasal and sinus conditions. “We are excited to be able to provide greater convenience for patients in the Santa Monica area,” says head-and-neck surgeon Paul Kedeshian, M.D. “Having better access increases the likelihood that patients will address nagging problems that can affect their quality of life, as well as problems that might be more serious and need to be detected and treated in a more timely fashion.”

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