The Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment of Hearing Loss

The term hearing loss is a generic and one that is used to describe any condition in which the sensitivity of one or both ears to sound is reduced to varying degrees as compared to that which is accepted to be the norm. The condition is actually quite distinct from the total inability to detect any sound at all and referred to as deafness. The impairment experienced by a given individual may involve sounds in general although, quite often, the effect can be seen to be limited to just a certain range of frequencies. Whichever may be the case, the severity of the malfunction must be quantified. This is achieved by determining the extent of the increase above the volume required by an average subject with no impairment that is necessary before a subject can detect a given tone.

The causes of the condition are both numerous and varied. They include losses that will frequently result as a natural consequence of the aging process, prolonged exposure to excessive noise levels, genetic pre-disposition, the secondary effects of various illnesses such as measles or mumps, neurological disorders, the side effects of various medications and physical trauma such as a skull fracture.

Though the resulting effects in such cases will often be temporary, in a surprisingly high number of the patients that are found to exhibit some degree of impairment today the condition is seen as a premature form of hearing loss with the potential to become permanent and whose cause can be linked directly to repeated exposure to high ambient noise levels.

Such incidents are the primary reason that, in many manufacturing facilities and workshops today, the use of ear protectors has become compulsory. Living close to the flight path of a busy airport, however, can have a similar effect and today’s youth are also succumbing to the same impairment from exposure to loud music in discotheques and, more seriously, from the use of in-ear earphones, a practice with the potential to cause more permanent damage. In the US, estimates suggest that as many as 12.5% of children between 6 and 19 have now sustained permanent damage as a direct result of prolonged exposure to loud noise.

Often a sufferer will overlook the early signs of impairment and claim, instead that the fault actually lies not in any problem with sound reception but in the quality of its source. As a result, it is frequently only the pressure applied by friends or relatives that spurs them to seek help. The diagnosis can be undertaken by a trained audiologist such as those that are to be found at any of the nineteen centres in South Africa and Namibia operated by the Ear Institute. Some questioning and a preliminary ear examination will often indicate the cause and, using an audiometer and other specialised instruments, the extent of any malfunction may then be measured and its cause identified. Once this is known, a suitable treatment may be determined.

In some cases the required corrective measures could be as simple as treating an undiscovered ear infection, discontinuing the use of some offending medication or limiting exposure to noise. Other forms of hearing loss may require differing interventions such as a hearing aid or even referral for cochlear implantation.

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