Treatment for Hearing Loss

Is There Actually an Effective Treatment for Hearing Loss?

Auditory impairment is a worldwide problem and one that is continuing to grow. Medical researchers laboured for many years to understand the mechanism of hearing and the factors leading to its decline. Today, armed with the findings of that research, the quest for a suitable treatment that could work for all causes of hearing loss is underway. Unfortunately, it is a quest that, as yet, has failed to produce the hoped-for panacea. This, however, does not mean that some forms of auditory impairment cannot be treated.

In some cases, loss of audition, if treated in time, can indeed be reversed. While, today, the most common cause of impairment is repeated, prolonged exposure to excessive levels of noise, this was not always the case. In practice, the main culprits were once ear infections and, even today, they are still the most common reason for children to require a visit to a paediatrician. Before the invention of antibiotics, there was no treatment for these infections, so permanent hearing loss was frequently the consequence of recurrent infections that eventually became chronic.

Somewhat ironically, along with a number of other medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and anti-malarial preparation, certain antibiotics can also have an ototoxic effect on susceptible patients, causing tinnitus and temporary auditory impairment. If not dealt with promptly, however, the impairment could eventually become permanent. In such cases, the solution is simply to cease the offending medication and to treat the patient with a suitable alternative. Other ototoxic substances, such as benzene, hexane, and toluene, may be encountered in the workplace. In these circumstances, there may be no treatment for those at risk of ototoxic hearing loss, other than a change of employment. Even then, once significant damage has occurred, it is currently irreversible.

In practice, until a cure is found, the approach to resolving the difficulties arising from auditory impairment will remain for the manufacturers of assisted hearing devices to continue developing and improving the technology with which patients are able to better manage these difficulties. In this endeavour, their achievements have been remarkable, especially during the decades following the birth of digital technology and solid-state circuitry. Whether their users perceive them as a treatment for hearing loss or simply a convenient tool with which to overcome many of the difficulties resulting from auditory impairment, the new generation of digital hearing aids has been changing thousands of lives for the better.

Since the early transistorised devices of the 1950s, the technology of assisted hearing has undergone a quantum leap. While these new, compact units were certainly less obtrusive than their predecessors, while still delivering adequate amplification, their users had to contend with a number of difficulties inherent in their design. Although reduced, static interference continued to be a problem, as did a tendency to respond to loud incoming sounds with the high-pitched whistling characteristic of audio-feedback loops. Far from being an effective treatment for overcoming the effects of hearing loss, these devices were also plagued by limited battery life and of limited value when attempting to converse in noisy surroundings.

Ongoing research and development by innovative manufacturers, such as Phonak, have not only overcome each of these annoying problems in turn, but have also vastly extended their basic performance and led to some brand new and invaluable added capabilities. From the viewpoint of the wearer, possibly the most important advance of all has been the improved quality of sound made possible with the use of microprocessors and advanced sound processing algorithms. This has made it possible for the wearer to both discern the direction of sounds and to discriminate between a speaker’s voice and those of others in the background. Not quite a treatment for hearing loss per se, perhaps, but certainly a huge step forward in the use of electronic aids to eliminate the associated communication difficulties.

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