Word on Health

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Word On Hearing Loss

Our grateful thanks  to Action On Hearing Loss for their contribution to our radio report. Thanks also to NHS Choices for the use of the information below(Please note: All hyperlinks on this page are highlighted in light blue).     

Hearing loss is a common problem that often develops with age or is caused by repeated exposure to loud noises. Action on Hearing Loss estimates that there are more than 11 million (about 1 in 6) people in the UK with some degree of hearing impairment or deafness.

How hearing works  Sound waves enter your ear and cause your eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations are passed to the three small bones (ossicles) inside your middle ear.

The ossicles amplify the vibrations and pass them on to your inner ear where tiny hair cells inside the cochlea (the coiled, spiral tube inside the inner ear) move in response to the vibrations and send a signal through a nerve called the auditory nerve to the brain.

Hearing loss can occur suddenly, but usually develops gradually. General signs of hearing loss can include:

  • difficulty hearing other people clearly and misunderstanding what they say
  • asking people to repeat themselves
  • listening to music or watching television with the volume turned up higher than other people require

Why it happens Hearing loss is the result of sound signals not reaching the brain. There are two main types of hearing loss, depending on where the problem lies:

  • sensorineural hearing loss – caused by damage to the sensitive hair cells inside the inner ear or damage to the auditory nerve; this occurs naturally with age or as a result of injury
  • conductive hearing loss – when sounds are unable to pass from your outer ear to your inner ear, often because of a blockage such as earwax, glue ear or a build-up of fluid from an ear infection, or because of a perforated ear drum or disorder of the hearing bones

It's also possible to have both these types of hearing loss. This is known as mixed hearing loss.  Some people are born with hearing loss, but most cases develop as you get older. 

Preventing hearing loss  It isn't always possible to prevent hearing loss if you have an underlying condition that causes you to lose your hearing.

However, there are several things you can do to reduce the risk of hearing loss from long-term exposure to loud noise. This includes not having music or the television on at a loud volume at home and using ear protection at loud music events or in noisy work environments.

You should also see your GP if you have signs of an ear infection, such as flu-like symptoms, severe earache, discharge or hearing loss.

Can you hear properly? Try answering these eight questions to gauge whether you could be losing your hearing.

  • Do other people seem to mumble rather than speak clearly to you?
  • Do people often have to repeat things for you before you understand what they say?
  • Do you have difficulty understanding what is being said in noisy places, such as pubs or restaurants, even though other people manage to have conversations?
  • When you are talking to people in a group, is it hard to keep up with the conversation?
  • Do other people think your television or music is too loud but you can't hear it properly if they turn it down?
  • Do you often have difficulty hearing on the telephone?
  • Have other people told you that you don’t hear well?
  • Do you find it tiring to listen to conversations because you have to concentrate hard?

When to visit your GP  See your GP if you're having problems with your hearing, or your child is showing signs of hearing difficulty. If you lose your hearing suddenly, in one or both ears, you must see your GP as soon as possible.

Your GP can check for any problems and may refer you to an audiologist (hearing specialist) or an ENT surgeon for further tests.

Quick hearing checks are a good first step to finding out how healthy your hearing is without having to visit your GP or a private hearing specialist. They're free, painless and take just five to 15 minutes. As mentioned in our radio report you can check your hearing via the Action On Hearing Loss website.  (An over-the-phone hearing check is also available from the charity on 0844 800 3838 (local rate call). This service is completely automated you won't have to speak to anyone and anonymous. The British Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists (BSHAA) also offer a free online hearing check 

These checks have been validated and if they suggest hearing loss, they can spur you to take further action. Yhey're not a medical diagnosis, just a screening test and they’re no substitute for a full hearing test. If the quick hearing check doesn't suggest hearing loss but you're having hearing difficulties, do see your GP. (Don’t be tempted to buy a hearing aid on the basis of an online test alone, as some other websites might encourage you to do.) 

Private testing  You might choose to go directly to a private hearing aid dispenser instead of having your hearing tested on the NHS. Just as with the NHS route, a hearing aid dispenser will assess you with a full hearing test lasting up to an hour before deciding if you would benefit from wearing hearing aids. You don’t need a referral from your GP.

You can search for a local hearing aid dispenser on the BSHAA's website, or simply type ‘hearing aid dispenser’ along with your town or postcode into a search engine, such as Google. Some local hearing aid dispensers offer free testing, so it's worth asking before you make an appointment.

The Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) keeps a list of qualified private hearing aid dispensers. You can use the HCPC's online register to check if the hearing aid dispenser you're about to use is registered.

Action on Hearing Loss has an online Locate and Rate tool that lets you search for audiology services in your area, both NHS and private, by name, address and postcode. Once you've found a service, you can see how other people have rated it.

Treating hearing loss  The way hearing loss is treated depends on the cause and how severe it is.

In cases of sensorineural hearing loss, there are several options that may help to improve a person’s ability to hear and communicate. These include:

  • digital hearing aids – which are available through the NHS
  • bone anchored implants – suitable for people who are unable to use hearing aids and for some levels of sensorineural hearing loss
  • middle ear implants – suitable for some people who are unable to use hearing aids
  • cochlear implants – for people who find hearing aids aren't powerful enough
  • lip reading and/or sign language – such as British Sign Language (BSL)

Conductive hearing loss is sometimes temporary and can be treated with medication or minor surgery, if necessary. However, more major surgery may be required to fix the ear drum or hearing bones. If conventional hearing aids don't work, there are also some implantable devices for this type of hearing loss, such as a Bone Anchored Hearing Aids (BAHAs).

Further help and support

Action on Hearing Loss 

British Deaf Association 

Hearing Link   

Signhealth

National Deaf Children's Society

Menieres Society

NHS Choices

British Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists

The Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC)

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.