Audiologist Dr. Robin Maxon, right, is in the Acoustics System audiometric sound booth with patient KC Kunkle, using an otoscope to examine the anatomy of his ear canal to be sure there are no abnormalities in the ear canal or at the level of eardrum. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)
Like so many medical technologies, hearing aids have gone high tech. Away with the clunky brown thing in your ear that buzzes and whistles at the most inopportune moments of your life. The 21st century hearing aids are known as “behind the ear receiver-in-the-canal technology.”
When a patient has his hearing evaluated and is equipped with these state-of-the-art hearing aids, he might feel he’s being fitted for a miniature computer and he would be right.
“Hearing aids are little computers that need attention and care,” said Dr. Robin Maxon of Eastern Oregon Audiology, 1613 Fifth St., La Grande. Maxon has been a practicing audiologist for the past 15 years, and she recently moved with her family to La Grande and centralized her practice in order to serve a greater patient population in Northeast Oregon.
“When I relocated my practice to La Grande, I invested in all new equipment for assessing hearing and for fitting hearing aids,” Maxon said.
The evaluation and assessment process takes place in an Acoustics Systems’ audiometric exam booth, resembling a bank vault with 4-inch-thick paneled walls, glass windows and a door that provides impressive isolation from peripheral sounds with the inside equipped with a computerized work station.
“The Acoustics Systems soundproof room allows me to evaluate in the best conditions possible to get an accurate picture of how the hearing system is functioning,” Maxon said.
A thorough and accurate examination is critical if an audiologist is going to make a correct diagnosis and employ the best technology and treatment for the patient. A full and comprehensive evaluation involves identifying whether there is nerve damage or if hearing loss is coming from other parts of the hearing system.
If a hearing loss is identified and cannot be corrected by surgical options, a certified audiologist like Maxon can fit hearing aids that will allow the patient to hear the sounds they are lacking due to hearing loss, and, in doing so, resume stimulating the auditory cortex in the patient’s brain.
“If you don’t use that part of your brain, you’ll lose it,” Maxon said. “The brain continues to form connections called synapses in all different modalities of the brain, and the same is true for the auditory centers of the brain. You have to use it, though, or you’ll lose it. That’s why it’s important that people get hearing aids that accurately treat the hearing loss so the brain will receive proper stimulation again.”
Properly fitted hearing aids will aid in stimulation, which enhances blood flow and oxygen to nourish the auditory centers of the brain and keep it forming those nerve
“Our goal is to get stimulation through clear sound to the brain,” Maxon said. “There are two auditory centers in the brain. Hearing through the right ear is processed on the left side of the brain, and hearing through the left ear is processed on the right side of the brain. Even if a person has hearing loss in just one ear, it still needs to be treated so we can get the opposite side of the brain stimulated.”
Maxon said today treatment is available for almost any hearing loss.
“I can treat almost every kind of hearing loss, and if I cannot treat it, I will refer the patient on to centers that perform surgical implants,” Maxon said. “I work closely with ear, nose and throat physicians, whether in our tri-county area or in Boise or Portland.”
When a patient is identified with a hearing loss and fit for hearing aids, the goal is to reduce unwanted background noise and enhance sounds of speech, which is made possible by new hearing aid technology through noise-canceling filters and directional microphones.
“Hearing aids bridge the gap by reprocessing outside sound and amplifying it appropriately so the brain can identify and correctly interpret sounds and speech,” Maxon said.
Advanced hearing aid fitting equipment allows the audiologist to see in real time what the patient is hearing through a hearing aid, using a probe microphone that measures sound in the ear canal.
Behind the ear receiver-in-canal hearing aids can be fitted with a wireless Bluetooth converter that can be synced with iPods, MP3 players, cellphones and TVs. The converter connects with both hearing aids, and runs through the prescription that the audiologist sets so the brain processes the signals accurately.
“Our baby boomers are really getting into this technology,” Maxon said.
Maxon cited several causes for hearing loss, including poor health, head trauma, chronic ear infections, environmental factors, viruses and genetics. Environmental factors often include exposure to loud noises, certain chemicals, certain medications or regularly listening to loud music on headphones.
Sometimes a patient may think his hearing loss is due to wax build up. By examining the patient’s ear, an audiologist can easily determine if wax build up is a factor, but Maxon said it’s usually not wax, but an actual hearing loss that the patient is noticing.
“If a person experiences a sudden loss of hearing, it is absolutely imperative that they see an audiologist immediately for a hearing evaluation to determine the nature of that hearing loss,” Maxon said. “If it’s in the hearing organ itself, a sensorineural hearing loss, there’s only 24 to 36 hours to treat that hearing loss or the loss will be permanent. Of those treated within that time, only 30 percent will recover their hearing.”
The only way to tell if it is a sensorineural hearing loss is to have a comprehensive evaluation performed by a certified audiologist.
A hearing evaluation may also help identify the cause of a patient’s dizziness or decreased balance, since your hearing and balance involve the same organ.
“So part of our protocol is to have a comprehensive hearing workup for anyone who has dizziness or decreased balance,” Maxon said. “That’s one of the first steps. Then we can refer the patient appropriately for further diagnosis and treatment, which can prove to be very effective.”
Hearing loss facts
• Nearly 38 million Americans have a significant hearing loss.
• Mild hearing loss can cause a child to miss as much as 50 percent of classroom discussion.
• With early diagnosis and treatment, deaf children can develop communication skills at the same rate as their hearing peers.
• Noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss.
• Listening to an MP3 player at high volumes over time can cause permanent damage to hearing.
• Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) affects 50 million people in the United States.
Source: Center for Hearing and Communication