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Information on Hearing Aids

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Joan McKechnie

According to a 2005 survey by the RNID which sampled over 20,000 participants, the UK is thought to include over 10 million individuals who are hearing impaired, of which over 6 million are thought to display the symptoms of age related hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss is a type of hearing disability also known as presbycusis in which moderate demise of the inner ear hair cells leads to a growing difficulty in hearing certain frequencies.

The inner ear hair cells are important tiny structures within the cochlea that capture sounds (vibrations in the ear to be accurate) that are sent to the brain by way of the hearing nerve. As the body matures, the quality and indeed quantity of these hair cells diminishes, leading to an inability to capture certain sounds. The solution which hearing specialists often recommend is using a form of assistive listening device to compensate for the demise of the hair cells.

Of the available assistive listening devices, the most prolific solutions are digital hearing aids, which are available to purchase privately or from the NHS at no cost (following a hearing specialists referral). Hearing aids differ in their amplification level as well as in the manner in which they reside in the ear (or even on the body). Essentially they are battery powered mini computers housed in a small case containing a microphone to pick up sound (waves and vibrations in the air), an amplifier to increase this sound depending on the individuals level of hearing loss and a small loud speaker which is tasked with sending the sound, now fully amplified, into the inner ear. While all hearing aids work in a similar manner, they are often set apart by their style of fitting.

Most common types of hearing aids are:

BW or Body Worn – The size of a small mobile phone, these are carried on the body often attached to the belt. Their larger size allows for extreme amplification. The body worn option is quite rare nowadays as users tend to prefer more discreet solutions. Still, the NHS often prefers to prescribe body worn aids in the case of young children.

BTE or Behind The Ear – These are the most commonly fitted hearing aid styles, often distinguished by their banana shape. BTE hearing aids are fitted behind the wearer’s ear with a small tube from the device leading to the ear. They are considered the most comfortable style and are available privately and from the NHS.

ITE or In The Ear – Hearing aids that are not body worn or housed behind the ear will fall under the category of ITE. As the name implies, they fill either the whole bowl (concha) or fit half way in the ear.

ITC or CIC – In The Canal (ITC) and Completely In The Canal (CIC) are two variants of discreet hearing aids designed to disguise the presence of a hearing aid. Typically their size will mean less battery life and lower levels of amplification.

If you suffer from hearing loss or you care for someone that you suspect might have a hearing disability, a visit to your family doctor or your local hearing centre should be your first step. A hearing test will then take place and if the hearing sense is indeed impaired, you will be presented with several options to manage your hearing loss.

Joan McKechnie, BSc Hons, is an audiologist and speech pathologist at Hearing Direct., a UK-based hearing specialist.

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