Understanding the Role of Audiology

Much to the annoyance of some practitioners who believed their function may be seen as teaching people to wiggle their ears, the science of audiology was formerly referred to quite widely as ’auricular training’. The revised term derives from both Latin and Greek roots. A contraction formed from the Latin verb ‘audire’ meaning ‘to hear’ and the Greek noun ‘logia’ which translates as ‘study’ or ‘knowledge’, it describes the investigation, diagnosis and, where possible, the management or correction of various hearing disorders.

These functions are conducted by highly trained healthcare professionals with a specialised knowledge of both the auditory and vestibular regions of the ear. Through various forms of examination and testing, much of which requires the use of specialised instrumentation, the primary aim of these investigations is to determine whether or not a patient’s ability to perceive sounds of various frequencies and at varying volume levels falls within the range that is generally accepted as normal. In the event that there is a significant departure from this range, the next step for the practitioner would be to attempt to identify its root cause.

Impaired hearing may arise from a variety of causes and, in recent years, one of the most common of these is prolonged exposure to excessive noise. Even quite a brief exposures may lead to a temporary reduction in auditory acuity that is, however, reversible. Continued exposure, combined with very high volumes however may result in more permanent damage that will continue to worsen as long as the source of noise remains.

The role of Audiology extends beyond the investigation of hearing disorders, however, and its practitioners are often called upon to investigate giddiness or vertigo and the accompanying loss of balance. These symptoms are similar to the ‘bed spins’ often experienced after excessive intake of alcohol though more persistent. They normally arise as a result of some damage or infection to the vestibular system that results in the malfunction of the labyrinth. This complex structure is located within the innermost chamber of the ear. It contains, along with the cochlea and otolithic organs, three fluid-filled structures positions approximately at right angles to one another and known as the semicircular canals.

Stimuli produced by the movement of the fluid over hair-like sensors within the canals arise from changes in posture and serve to update the brain on the body’s current orientation. The brain, in turn, can then initiate the various muscle adjustments needed to re-establish balance. Another function of the labyrinth is to control eye movements that are extremely important to the overall process of maintaining the clear vision that also contributes to the body’s ability to remain balanced.

In many instances, the practitioner will detect the presence of an infection, find indication of some other underlying pathology or encounter a degree of deafness that will not be adequately corrected by means of a conventional hearing aid. In such cases, his or her responsibility will then be to arrange an appropriate referral, perhaps to an ear nose and throat specialist or a surgeon who specialises in cochlear implantation.

Today those involved in the profession are graduates with skills that include counselling and sign language. Many with master’s degrees or doctorates now contribute to research programmes designed to advance the science of audiology.

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