Working with hearing aids can sometimes feel a little magical. That’s not to say that hearing aids magically fix hearing loss, rather the magic lies in the joy they can bring.
We understand that there is a large amount of stigma behind hearing aid usage. We think when people imagine hearing aids they picture gigantic beige devices sitting conspicuously in people’s ears. While we can’t rid society of the stigma, we think chipping away at it with better awareness and understanding of hearing aids is a start.
Modern hearing aids are digital systems that operate using what’s called Wide Dynamic Range Compression (WDRC). An understanding of WDRC and its purpose is probably the most important aspect of the magic of modern hearing aids. To give a little history, around the early 1900s the first iterations of amplification systems took sound and made that sound louder. Woo! That’s awesome! Except, not all sound needs to be made louder. Do I want the door slamming shut to be louder? Do I want to turn up the volume of the sirens on the street? We can now see the struggle of the users of those early systems. Another less obvious issue with simply taking sound and making it louder is that, well, that’s often not the solution for people seeking to have better speech understanding. Hearing loss that is a result of sensory or nerve damage causes distortion of sounds as they travel from the ear to the brain.
As clinicians, we assess how badly this distortion affects speech understanding during a patient’s hearing evaluation. Sometimes making the sound louder actually causes distortion resulting in worse speech understanding. This is why when you find yourself communicating with a person wearing hearing aids, it is not ideal to simply speak louder when the person does not understand. Rephrasing is a better strategy.
At this point you might be thinking that all seems lost. WDRC was created to address the complex issue of providing amplification but only to certain sounds, at certain levels, at certain times. WDRC gives a lot of volume to soft sounds, gives some volume to medium sounds, and even less to loud sounds. Just like its name implies, we are compressing sounds down in volume so not all incoming sounds are treated the same. For instance, sirens are not amplified in the way that a child’s voice might be. We can also compress sound by pitch. For patients with a severe enough hearing loss, we can actually take speech sounds that they can’t hear and move them into a pitch range that they can hear. In addition to all this fancy stuff, clinicians can also use other technical features to improve quality of sound especially when trying to hear in background noise. Magic.
All these processes would be impressive for any system, but hearing aids do this all in real time. As we speak to someone with hearing aids, those aids are relaying those words with undetectable lag. Additionally, at any given moment, the hearing aids are doing many, many calculations of the patient’s environment, ensuring that they are picking up what the patient actually wants to be listening to.
It is at this point that we must again caution you that hearing aids do not magically provide better hearing. A professional needs to program them to provide the best amplification possible given each patient’s unique hearing difficulties. Hearing aid success lies on how well they were programmed to work for each specific patient. When we program hearing aids we use more than just your audiogram or hearing test results. We use precise measurements taken by a microphone placed inside your ear to measure what the hearing aids are doing. The measurements ensure we are meeting the prescription amplification levels for your individual hearing loss.
When hearing aids are properly selected and programmed, they make everyday life so much easier and enjoyable for patients and their families. The real magic is bearing witness to so much joy from our patients. Some cry from happiness the first time they try on hearing aids. It’s as if something that was so precious that they lost has been found again. As audiologists, we are humbled by our patients’ gratitude and trust.
If you are wondering how hearing aids work, give us a call and schedule an appointment. We start with a thorough examination of your ears and your hearing. We also discuss your daily activities, and specific communication needs. Based on the information we gathered we can make recommendations and answer all your questions. We’re “hear” when you need us! 🙂