Any Quick Fixes for Hearing Loss?

Are there any ways to treat hearing loss and turn back the tide? Like athletes who suffer injuries, get treatment, and go through rehab until they eventually get back to where they were performance-wise (or at least close)?

Unfortunately, hearing loss is usually a lot more permanent than a sports injury. There are treatment options for some situations, but the fact is that most people lose their hearing because parts of the inner ear wear out — either as they age or when suffering exposure to excessive noise — and there is not currently any way to replace those tiny sections of the ear.

There is significant research beginning on the use of gene therapies to treat a wide range of hearing issues, but actual treatments are years away. Likewise, drug therapies are being explored — including clinical trials on treatments that seek to regrow the tiny hair cells that translate sound waves into electrical impulses to the brain — but they too are nowhere near being marketed.

In some cases of sudden hearing loss — usually, after exposure causes inflammation in the ear canal — steroid treatments, if quickly administered, can reduce the risk of permanent hearing loss.

Profound hearing issues can be treated with Cochlear implants — which surgically bypass the cochlea where those vital tiny hairs are located — but this is considered a significant procedure. Hearing aids are a required first option before Cochlear implants can be considered for adults.

A few specific conditions have corresponding procedures. Bone-anchored hearing systems (BAHAs) treat certain ear canal irregularities. A stapedectomy is the insertion of a prosthesis to replace bones in the middle ear that are vital to moving sound waves into the inner ear. Pressure equalization (PE) tubes can be inserted in cases of significant fluid buildup that is causing hearing issues.

But the reality is that most hearing loss does not have a “quick fix” other than learning to use a hearing aid to make up for issues deep inside the ear.

The Smallest Gets Even Smaller

The Lyric line of hearing aids by Phonak has been a trendsetter since first being introduced in 2007. It was the first extended-wear and invisible model on the market and can be used for months without being removed. And its in-the-ear fitting means that, in the age of COVID, it doesn’t get caught up on the ear loops of masks.

And 2021 will see the latest upgrade to the line with the release of the Lyric4.

Somehow, the already small-enough-to-be-invisible Lyric has been made even smaller, making it even more comfortable. Its ruggedness factor has also been cranked up by better protecting it from earwax and other material that can degrade performance.

New users have reported that the smaller size reduces skin irritation and made using a Lyric even more seamless. This has led to an increase in the already high fitting success rate for units placed in the ears of users. And a redesigned moat around the medial port receiver reduces the opportunity for debris to interfere with the Lyric’s functions, meaning units will last longer after installation.

For most users, comfort is one of the two most important factors in rating hearing aid (the other being performance). The Lyric has always rated high in both areas and the Lyric4 boosts comfort significantly. Its invisibility is also a highly rated feature.

“There’s no daily maintenance so wearers can live their life without thinking about their hearing aids,” explained the vice president of marketing for Sonova (Phonak’s parent company) Martin Grieder. “This is extremely important for many consumers and reinforces why Lyric is such a valuable part of the Phonak portfolio.”

The Lyric4 will come in seven sizes to meet the needs of almost any consumer.

Being Low Stress Will Help Your Hearing

The bad news is that chronic stress can actually degrade your hearing.

Lucky that 2020 has been so stress-free.

Where’s the good news? Well, in this case, there isn’t any — though there are ways to mitigate this reality.

Hearing is not the only area of health that is negatively impacted by stress. This list is, unfortunately, long and well-known: a whole host of cardiovascular impacts (diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease), a weakened immune system, and numerous mental health effects are put at risk by stress.

And why is hearing health part of that list? Because the finely-tuned apparatus of the ear is very dependent on the efficiency of the body’s cardiovascular system. This is especially true of the sensory hair cells that are a critical part of the ear. Without them, electrical signals are not sent to the brain after sound waves have been collected by other parts of the ear. And without good blood flow, these hairs can die off — and unlike outer body hair, they don’t regenerate.

This is yet another reason to mitigate your stress level. Here are some tips (other than turning off the news):

  • Take regular breaks from stress-inducing situations. This will do wonders.
  • Even just 20 minutes of exercise a day is proven to lower chronic stress.
  • Did you know that when facial muscles put a smile on your face that signals are sent to the brain that release endorphins (our natural happy pills)?
  • Humans are designed to enjoy social interaction.
  • Forms of meditation — common across human cultures — positively impact the body.

It’s been a long year. For the sake of your hearing — and everything else — try to manage the stress as best you can.

Your Hearing and Your Holiday

Some people love the family get together of Thanksgiving. Some grin and bear it. But no matter where one falls on that spectrum, anyone with hearing loss can find such events a challenge.

Being in a crowded holiday space means a congested auditory environment, making it hard to decipher individual words from the cacophony — and conversation a challenge.

If COVID-19 isn’t putting the kibosh on your Thanksgiving plans this year — and your hearing is an issue — there are some things you can do manage the day.

First, remember that taking breaks throughout the day will help. Working through hearing issues is hard mental work and getting some downtime to recharge will not only improve your comprehension but also probably lighten your mood. Walks around the block or sitting in the quietest room in the house are a good idea.

As far as strategies for when you’re in the thick of things, remember that where you position yourself in a room can be important. Not only will you spend a lot of time passing dishes around if you sit in the middle of the table, but you will also be trying to manage voices from either side and in front of you. Sitting at the corner of the table will cut down on the input you have to process. Likewise, stay away from sitting near the TV.

And let people who may not be aware of it know that you’re hard of hearing. Pride is not your friend in this situation. And use the hearing aid if you’ve got one. Trying to fake it will just lead to frustration. If you make it clear that hearing doesn’t come as naturally to you as to others, people will be far more likely to slow down and make things easier.

There’ll be plenty to talk about — hopefully not too much politics — so do everything you can to be part of the conversation.

Time to Take the Bull By the Horns

With October being National Audiology Awareness Month — coming after restricted access to hearing healthcare professionals due to COVID-19 restrictions — now’s a great time to go over some reasons why you should give your hearing issues some attention.

The fact is, ignoring them will not only lead to poorer hearing, but also make a host of other health issues more likely.

One of the most profound reasons, especially for those in middle age, is that poor hearing can contribute to brain atrophy. Hearing isn’t just about your ears. The auditory cortex, part of the temporal lobe, is a portion of the brain that also handles language. If there are issues with the functioning of your ears, this will have a snowball effect and lead to the performance of the auditory cortex degrading — or even switching over to other tasks (which makes hearing issues harder to deal with later).

Poor hearing can also cause issues with brain function in other ways. Alzheimer’s and dementia have both been found to be more prevalent in people with untreated hearing issues. One reason is the brain atrophy referenced above, while the loneliness that often accompanies poor hearing — which makes conversation difficult — is also a significant risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s.

This ties in with emotional health. Those with poor hearing have starkly higher rates of depression. Again, the challenge of social activities — when it’s so difficult to interact with people — is the primary driver of this phenomenon.

Poor hearing can even just make you more tired. This is known as listener fatigue and is tied to the brain pouring so much energy into interpreting the poor-quality sound it’s trying to process.

If you’ve gotten to the other side of COVID quarantine with some questions about your hearing, now’s the time to take action and “see” what’s going on.

Please, Just Turn Everything Down

It’s like something from a horror movie or an episode of The Twilight Zone. Some unknown hand has turned up the volume on the world. Everything is just too loud and there’s no way to make it stop.

Unfortunately, this is actually not fantasy for the small minority of people who suffer from hyperacusis. This is a condition that, well, makes everything too loud.

It’s not really understood why it develops, only that very many other issues can spark it. It can come on gradually or suddenly and has been associated with, among other things, exposure to excessive noise, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Lyme disease, viral infections of the head, migraines, brain injuries, and a host of other conditions.

For some reason, a variety of things can cause failures with the parts of the ear that react protectively to loud sounds, along with issues with the auditory nerve and central auditory portion of the brain.

The result is something that can make everyday life a marathon of unpleasantness and frayed nerves. It can be accompanied by pain, nausea, dizziness, and a loss of balance in an environment with excessive noise. Not any fun at all.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure. The best treatment option is sound therapy, which uses a noise generator to buffer the sound environment and train the auditory processing center to relearn its function. This usually takes six months to a year and is done under the supervision of a professional, trained audiologist.

So, for people suffering from hyperacusis, there is hope.

Beware Swimmer’s Ear

Everyone is itching to get out and do something. And swimming is one of the best ways to get some exercise, even though public pools may not be an option due to COVID-19.

But that itch to get in the water can lead to the nasty itch of swimmer’s ear, so take some precautions. And FYI, you don’t need to go swimming to get swimmer’s ear.

Swimmer’s ear is just the generic name for an outer ear infection (otitis externa). It’s when bacteria works its way into the skin lining the ear canal. Two things make this likely to happen. Abrasions in the skin that are often caused by overly aggressive cleaning of the ear (i.e., vigorously rubbing a Q-tip in there) and ears getting water-logged.

Put the two together with a wide range of common bacteria and the next thing you know your ear (or ears) itch and pushing the tragus (that lump of flesh that protects the opening of the ear canal) or tugging your earlobe is painful.

If things get worse, clear fluid might start draining from the ear — maybe even pus (yuck) — along with hearing loss and pain spreading down into the neck area (which means the infection has gotten to your lymph nodes). A fever is probably part of this too.

Not a great way to celebrate summer. And at this point, a visit to the doctor is in order.

The best way to prevent a bout of swimmer’s ear is to let your ears dry out thoroughly after they’ve gotten wet, whether from swimming, activities in the rain, or sweat. That means not popping a hearing aid back in immediately — give the ear canal some time to work its evaporation magic. Earplugs are also a great idea for swimmers.

If you start feeling an itch, there are over-the-counter eardrops that will both treat an infection and aid the evaporation process. Bottles are less than $10, so a preventive care bargain when compared to a doctor’s visit.

Masks and Hearing Aids Don’t Really Work Well Together

Everyone was hoping that COVID-19 would be less and less a part of our lives as the summer rolled on. That’s not looking too likely now.

And wearing a mask when out in public appears to be one of the keys to getting control of this newest coronavirus.

Which presents some challenges to anyone with hearing issues, especially those who use hearing aids.

The obvious fact is that hearing someone who is wearing a mask is significantly more difficult. The mask muffles their voice. And facial expressions and “lip reading” visual cues are absent.

The only real solutions are ensuring that the person you’re speaking with knows about your hearing issue — so they can try to speak more slowly and clearly — and avoiding noisy environments (which make conversations more challenging even in the best of times).

As far as wearing a mask, the first step is creating a routine that allows you to get a mask on and off without knocking your hearing aid out. Practice makes perfect.

But a mask with a tie string — as opposed to elastic ear loops — might make this easier (though the knot does have to be retied periodically to keep the mask snug). The other option is using a mask holder, which cinches up the elastic bands behind your head (avoiding the ears completely). They can be purchased with easy-to-use buttons — or improvised with s-hooks or even large paperclips.

Finally, hearing aid providers may have some clever tricks they can share with you as we all come to terms with living with COVID-19.

A Month For Men to Think of Their Health

In part to honor Father’s Day, June is Men’s Health Month. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is meant to “… raise awareness about health care for men and focus on encouraging boys, men, and their families to practice and implement healthy living decisions.”

And one area of health to consider this month is hearing health.

This may not come as a shock, but men are less likely to take steps to deal with hearing issues than women are. This even though men are, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, at double the probability for having such issues.

There are a number of risk factors that make men more likely to develop hearing loss:

  • Men suffer from diabetes at a somewhat higher rate than women; the condition makes hearing loss twice as likely.
  • Studies have tied regular use of common painkillers, known as analgesics (aspirin, acetaminophen, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) with a higher risk of hearing loss in men.
  • Long-term exposure to loud work environments (careers like construction, manufacturing, or the military) and recreational pastimes (hunting, sports, small motors like lawn mowers and leaf blowers) present significant risk for hearing loss.

Ultimately, degraded hearing is not the only thing men need to worry about. There is now a wealth of evidence showing that poor hearing — especially later in life — is a significant driver of mental health issues like depression and degraded overall cognitive performance.

So, make June a time to think about your hearing and how to protect it. Or make the man in your life do it.

A Change of Plans

Since 1927, May has been Better Hearing and Speech Month.

But there’s never been a year quite like this one.

Activities and programs meant to center, this year, on issues around “Communication at Work” have had to be shelved to deal with the elephant in the room that no one can ignore: COVID-19.

The organization that first established and still manages Better Hearing and Speech Month, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), has had to switch gears.

Representing 211,000 members and affiliates — from audiologists to speech-language pathologists to support personnel — ASHA decided to turn its attention to the immediate matters at hand. The focus is now on providing resources for managing current circumstances — and helping shape the nation’s response to COVID.

This has included helping craft changes to federal telehealth payment regulations to allow for more “distance” consulting by audiologists, which was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This month’s focus is also on helping hearing health professionals institute best practices in their facilities in order to restrict the spread of the virus.

In addition, ASHA has published a “COVID-19 and Hearing Loss in Adults: Strategies at Home” pamphlet to help individuals cope with issues during this time of restricted access to professional in-person support. Further guidelines will continue to be published throughout the month by ASHA.

Everyone in the hearing health profession is struggling to create new protocols on the fly. This includes students whose preparations for entering the field have been disrupted, researchers who have had to halt studies, and manufacturers whose product development work has been paused.

Eventually, in-person care will return. But rescheduling cancelled appointments and overdue hearing aid maintenance will have to wait for now.