Hearing aids are not easy to understand. Many people are boggled by a variety of advertisements, varying prices, and even amplification devices they find on a shelf at their local pharmacy. It can be difficult to understand what will be helpful for hearing loss and what is the best venue to receive hearing healthcare. This post will walk you through three types of devices people often ask me about and explain the capabilities and purposes of each.
Personal Sound Amplification Devices:
Personal Sound Amplification Devices or PSAPs are devices found on the shelf at a store. They have been around for years. These devices can be misleading because they are manufactured to look like a hearing aid you would purchase in a health practice. If you read the disclaimers and use guidelines on these devices, the labeling clearly states they are for people with normal hearing. But why would people with normal hearing want something that looks like a hearing aid? These devices were designed for people with normal hearing who may want to hear something more easily. Think of bird watchers or a hiker who wants to hear more while out in nature. They will use these devices to hear low level sounds that would be undetectable or faint with normal hearing.
The physical appearance, availability in stores, and low cost make PSAPs very easy for someone who has a hearing loss to be curious and want to try these devices for help. The danger in PSAPs is that they amplify all sounds in the environment equally. When hearing loss occurs, it is rarely equal at all pitches. Most people who develop hearing loss have perfect hearing for low pitches, but have loss in the middle and high pitches. If a device turns up all pitches equally, it may actually be dangerous to the consumer.
Patients who try these first are discouraged because of poor sound quality and feel since the device doesn't not help them, no device will. This leads them to believe that there is nothing that can help them, and they may never seek help from a professional for their hearing loss. Additionally, when we listen to sounds that are too loud for a long period of time, there can be further hearing loss and damage. When you use a PSAP, you are turning up the volume of the device to your own comfort level. Unfortunately, what may feel comfortable to your ears may not be safe. Continual use with a device that is not adjusted to your needs can cause more hearing damage and worsen your condition.
Over-the-Counter Hearing Devices:
These devices should arrive on the market soon. According to the National Institutes of Health, the FDA is currently working on establishing safety guidelines for these devices. Once they become available, they can be bought online or through a retailer and are intended for people who have a mild to moderate hearing loss. The purchase of over-the-counter hearing devices will not require a visit with a health care professional. One foreseen problem with the purchase of this type of device will be the loss of time with a hearing health provider. Due to the lack of requirement to be seen, no one will investigate the underlying cause of your hearing loss and this could mean that you will miss out on receiving targeted and appropriate medical care. The only way to determine whether your hearing loss is mild, moderate or severe is to take a hearing test with a hearing health provider. Finally, this option will not allow for the monitoring of your hearing over time. This is necessary to ensure your hearing loss has not changed and that you are still receiving appropriate care.
Hearing aids are obtained from a health provider, specifically an Audiologist (Au.D) or a Hearing Instrument Specialist (HIS). You will have your hearing measured prior to the recommendation of the device with a hearing evaluation. Based on the test and your lifestyle, a device is selected and programmed to your exact hearing loss. The output of the hearing aids on your ears is measured to ensure they are providing to proper sound needed for your hearing loss. This is called verification and ensures the hearing aids are programmed properly for the specific hearing loss identified. A few follow up visits are typically necessary to fine-tune the programming of the hearing aids, and it takes time to adjust to the sound you have been missing. At first, most people feel their hearing aids are annoying and far too loud. When sound is re-introduced, it can take a while for your brain to adjust back to our noisy world. Typically, after a few weeks of wearing the hearing aids during all waking hours, you will adjust and starting seeing the benefits of your hearing aids.
Hearing aids are digital devices. This means that in addition to being programmed to your exact hearing loss, they utilize computer technology to analyze sound coming into the hearing aid and help adjust that sound to make listening to speech easier. For example, many hearing aids use computer technology to help decrease background noise and focus on speech. Think of a party where you are trying to speak with a friend, but there are lots of people talking around you. Many hearing aids will attempt to increase the voice of the speaker you are connecting with and decrease the other sounds to the sides and behind. This may help with speech comprehension in more difficult listening environments. Hearing aids are tiny computers that use complex systems to provide you with the best possible sound. Even within hearing aids, there are different levels of technology that your health professional will help guide you through in order to make the best choice for your specific situation. It is important to remember that the more complex the listening environment you are in, the more likely you will benefit from advanced technology.
Of the two types of devices you will currently find on the market, PSAPs and hearing aids, the choice is clear for those with diagnosed hearing loss. I want to again reiterate that PSAPs are clearly marked at being only for people with normal hearing and not for use to aid in hearing loss. Even though this is not their intended use, people with hearing loss are tempted to use PSAPs to help with hearing loss due to their low cost.
Hearing aid cost can vary depending on where you obtain your devices. I advise everyone to start by seeing if their insurance will help them with obtaining hearing aids. If you do have coverage, be careful to follow the requirements so you can use this resource. If you do not have insurance coverage, I would recommend looking for a practice you are comfortable with. It is okay to go and meet with different providers to discuss hearing aid recommendations, cost, and customer service. Choosing where you get your hearing aids is not a one-time decision. Like other technologies, hearing aids need routine maintenance and may break down and need service. Also, hearing loss can change over time. Routine monitoring of hearing loss to detect any changes and then adjusting the hearing aid programming is also key to successful hearing aid use. I tell friends and family to choose a practice you feel comfortable asking questions and where you feel like you receive excellent service. It is important you are included and respected as part of your hearing health care team.
Finally, if you would like more information about hearing loss, hearing aids, communication strategies and more, I have designed an online course to help patients and their loved ones understand hearing loss and help set you up for communication success. Understanding a health condition so you can make informed decisions about care is key to becoming part of your hearing health care team. I hope you find this information helpful and please feel free to get in touch! You can find me at my website listed below:
Jessica Peterson, Au.D, CCC-A
Owner and Creator of Audiology Consults LLC