Hearing loss can make it difficult to interact with family and friends or enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life, like music. But hearing loss affects more than your ears. It can throw off your balance, degrade speech quality, impair your ability to function, and lead to social isolation.
Fortunately, help is as near as your local ear, nose and throat medical practice. ENT physicians and audiologists with Lakeshore Health Partners–Ear, Nose and Throat (LHP-ENT) offer a variety of up-to-date treatment options to help people with hearing disorders regain some or all of their hearing. Even those who are deaf or severely hearing-impaired can find “a new way of hearing” with cochlear implants, an advanced procedure that has recently become available at Holland Hospital.
Treatments restore hearing
“Most people with hearing loss, especially older individuals, have a problem of the inner ear, usually due to advanced age or long-term exposure to loud noise,” explains Joseph VanderMeer, MD, of LHP-ENT. “Other causes of hearing loss involve problems of the outer or middle ear, often due to chronic ear infections that have damaged the middle ear and the bones that transmit sound from the outside to the inner ear.”
ENT specialists use a range of techniques to improve a patient’s hearing ability, including inserting tubes to alleviate fluid buildup, removing wax, repairing holes in eardrums and replacing bones in the middle ear that have been eroded by infection. Inner ear problems are typically treated with hearing aids or, in advanced cases, surgical interventions such as cochlear implants.
Cochlear implants can bring sound to children and adults who are deaf or severely hearing impaired. The electronic device consists of a tiny external microphone and sound processor worn inconspicuously behind a patient’s ear, and a transmitter that is surgically placed under the skin. The transmitter collects sound signals and converts them to electronic impulses, which are sent directly to the auditory nerve. The brain recognizes the signals as “sound” that a patient learns to interpret and understand.
“Hearing through a cochlear implant takes time to learn,” Dr. VanderMeer notes. “But within a few months, people can recognize sounds and engage in conversation. Eventually, many can even talk on the telephone.”
According to the Food and Drug Administration, as of April 2009, approximately 188,000 people worldwide have received implants. In the United States, roughly 41,500 adults and 25,500 children have them.
“People who have lost all or most of their hearing later in life are the most likely to benefit from cochlear implants because they can associate the new sound signals with sounds they remember,” Dr. VanderMeer says.
However, the device also helps very young patients (the age of eligibility is 12 months) at a critical time for developing speech and language skills. “For children who are born deaf, a cochlear implant can markedly increase the child’s chance of being able to function effectively in mainstream school classes,” VanderMeer points out.
If you suffer from hearing impairment, talk to your doctor. He or she may refer you to an ENT specialist for a hearing test and a discussion of your ear problems and best options for improvement.
Sources: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, www.nidcd.nih.gov, and Center for Hearing and Communication, www.chchearing.org.