Hidden Hearing Loss

Do you have this? It is hearing loss that is not readily detectable by the standard audiogram, or hearing test. Results for pure tones (“push the button when you hear the beep”), and for speech testing in a quiet booth are ‘normal’. People with HHL will often report that they have difficulty hearing in noisy situations, such as a restaurant. What adds frustration, is when tested by an audiologist often times people are told hearing is normal and nothing is wrong.

The usual hearing tests measure the response of the hair cells in our inner ear, or cochlea. According to information obtained from research,  HHL most  arises from damage to the synapses between the hair cells and the fibers of the auditory (hearing) nerve. There can be damage to these areas, without seeing any damage to the hair cells. Normal hair cells = normal audiogram. Damaged synapses=trouble hearing in background noise.

How can we avoid HHL? The research tells us that some of this, unfortunately, is an unavoidable consequence of aging. However, there is an acceleration of neural damage resulting from noise exposure. Loud exposures, regardless of a ‘normal’ audiogram, can lead to HHL. Sometimes even one occurrence can lead to problems years later. Repeated exposures to the sun over time (without the protection of sunscreen) can damage our skin, even years after the exposure. Exposures to loud sounds (without hearing protection) lead not only to measurable hearing loss, but to Hidden Hearing Loss as well.

The moral of the story: protect your ears by wearing ear plugs or ear muffs in the presence of loud noise. See your audiologist for a baseline and annual hearing test. Especially if you are often exposed to loud noises. The audiologist can also help you choose the hearing protection that works best for your environment and your lifestyle.

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