You’ve probably had a hearing test at some point in your life, though it may have been a while ago. Hearing screenings are regularly given to schoolchildren and those who work in noisy environments, but they are not part of a regular medical checkup. If you’ve been an adult for a while and haven’t worked around hazardous noise, it’s possible you haven’t had a hearing test in more than a few decades.
It’s unfortunate that hearing tests aren’t a more regular part of our medical checkups. While most hearing loss is permanent, it is also completely preventable when the right precautions are employed. Regular hearing tests allow you to catch hearing loss before it becomes a major issue, allowing you to improve your use of hearing protection to prevent additional hearing loss, going forward.
The Better Hearing Institute, a non-profit organization, recommends getting a hearing test once every decade until age 50, and once every three years thereafter. Those in higher-risk professions or with a medical history indicating a higher risk—such as diabetes or prediabetes—should be tested even more regularly. A hearing test is the only objective measure of the state of your hearing ability, so especially if you question whether you have hearing loss, you should schedule one as soon as possible.
Before the Hearing Test
When you arrive at your hearing care provider’s office, they’ll ask you to fill out a questionnaire. This form will contain questions about your medical history, family medical history, lifestyle, profession, and more. We ask so many questions because hearing is so tightly integrated into so many areas of our lives, and can affect—and be affected by—so many aspects of what we do.
After you fill out the questionnaire, you’ll meet with your hearing care professional. They’ll go over the form with you to get more detailed answers about some of the questions. It’s all part of getting the best understanding of how your hearing is working for you in your life, and which activities are most important to you.
Then, your hearing care professional will use an otoscope to examine your ear canals and eardrums. This is the same device your general practitioner uses when you visit them. We want to make sure you don’t have any blockages or eardrum perforations that might be contributing to any hearing loss you might have. These issues can be resolved, improving your ability to hear, so we don’t want to prescribe hearing aids when cleaning out your ears would do the trick!
The Hearing Test
A hearing test consists of a number of different tests, but most of them are administered in the same way. You’ll be asked to step into a sound-proof booth and put on a set of headphones. Your hearing care professional will play sounds through these headphones, and ask you to respond to what you hear. All of the tests are completely painless and non-invasive.
For this test, your hearing care professional plays a series of “pure tones” into your headphones. The tones will vary in pitch and volume, and they may occur in one or both ears at a time. Pure tones, or “sine waves,” are sounds that have only one pitch, like a tuning fork. Most sounds contain overtones, undertones, harmonics, and noise. Pure tones, however, are good for testing hearing because they give us an accurate gauge of how well you hear at exactly one pitch, and one pitch only.
Hearing loss varies greatly between different individuals, so getting an accurate assessment of how well you hear at different pitches helps us to create an overall picture of your hearing ability, as well as program a set of hearing aids more accurately, should you need them.
This test works just like the pure-tone test, but uses speech instead of tones. Since speech is mostly what you will be trying to hear with a set of hearing aids, it’s important to get a sense of how loud speech will need to be amplified in order for you to hear it clearly.
Background noise makes it much more difficult to comprehend speech. Thankfully, most modern hearing aids have the ability to distinguish between speech and background noise, amplifying speech more than other sounds. This test allows us to get a sense of how great the difference should be in order for you to hear speech clearly.
This test occurs back outside the booth, and is designed to test your acoustic reflexes. Your hearing care professional will insert a soft rubber tip into your ear that is attached to a machine. The machine will change the air pressure in your ear canal. This feels a lot like what happens during takeoff and landing in an airplane. While it may be slightly uncomfortable, it is still completely painless.
After the Hearing Test
When your round of testing is complete, your hearing care professional will go over the results of your tests with you. Your pure-tone results will be displayed on an audiogram, which plots your hearing ability in both of your ears against “normal” hearing. If hearing aids are recommended for you, your hearing care professional will make some recommendations at this time.
If you or a loved one is ready for a hearing test, make an appointment today and start keeping track of your hearing health!