You might think that hearing loss is readily identifiable in your hearing test results, and often, it is. However, it’s a lesser-known fact that sometimes when individuals report having hearing issues, they have normal audiograms! As the name implies, hidden hearing loss is not detectable by audiograms, and can be a particularly tricky diagnosis.
What is Hidden Hearing Loss?
Before hearing loss even affects the hair cells of the ears (the tell-tale hearing loss sign that is looked for in a standard hearing test), the fibers located in the auditory nerves are damaged. A function of these auditory nerves is to connect to your hair cells, allowing you to hear in noisy environments, and working in harmony to filter out unnecessary background noise. When the auditory nerves are damaged it is difficult to hear in these noisy environments.
The reason this form of damage results in what is referred to as “hidden” hearing loss, is that it doesn’t appear on an audiogram, simply due to the conditions in which the test is carried out. The audiologist plays low-volume frequencies played in a quiet room which doesn’t actually test the response of the auditory nerve fibers. The patient’s results come back as “normal” because they haven’t been sufficiently tested to flag the cause of their hearing difficulties.
For the elderly, the audiogram might even reveal a modest deficit in hearing thresholds that is still incompatible with the severity of the patient’s complaints.
If you’re told that your hearing is “normal” (but you are obviously experiencing difficulties) this will not provide you with any comfort and can be incredibly frustrating to hear from a medical professional. Clearly, no matter what the audiogram says you know that your hearing isn’t as good as it used to be, and you still want to find a solution to your troubles.
What Causes Hidden Hearing Loss?
Just like with other and perhaps more obvious forms of hearing loss, hidden hearing loss is often caused by repeated exposure to loud noise. Interestingly, a 2017 study found no connection between recreational noise exposure and auditory functions. So, party on?
Aside from exposure to noise, aging is also thought to be a factor that contributes to hidden hearing loss. Furthermore, a 2017 study published in Nature listed the “transient loss of cochlear Schwann cells” as a new possible cause. People with auto-immune diseases such as acute demyelinating diseases may find themselves at a higher risk.
What Are The Symptoms?
Hidden hearing loss is sometimes difficult for the sufferer to even notice because you can normally hear perfectly well in quieter environments. When there are loud background noises and it suddenly becomes difficult to hear something like a conversation happening right in front of you, this is a sign that you may have hidden hearing loss. If this happens again and again, hidden hearing loss may well be the culprit.
How Do I Know If I Have Hidden Hearing Loss?
If you go to an audiologist with hearing difficulties, they will usually conduct a simple hearing test to see whether your audiogram reveals your hearing thresholds are within normal limits. A decade or so ago, if you passed a hearing test, an audiologist would probably conclude that you had normal hearing and leave it at that.
Now, if your results are within normal limits, your practitioner should understand the legitimacy of your complaints and conduct a comprehensive evaluation of your hearing, including specific tests that measure how your ears and your brain process sound. This is necessary to get to the bottom of your problems as it may be the case that you have hidden hearing loss.
It might be reassuring for you to hear that as James W. Hall highlights in Hidden Hearing Loss: An Audiologist’s Perspective, “In a typical audiology clinic population, pure tone audiometry is normal for about five to seven percent of patients with self-perceived hearing difficulties”. Now that the healthcare profession is aware of this fact, your hidden hearing loss should be diagnosable.
How to Treat Hidden Hearing Loss
As we’ve already mentioned, hidden hearing loss doesn’t impact the ears in the typical way that occurs in ordinary hearing loss. As a result, hearing aids aren’t usually very helpful.
Although it can be difficult, if you know you have hidden hearing loss you should limit your exposure to noisy environments as much as possible. This will be unavoidable to some extent, however, it’s better to organize certain things like one-on-one catch-ups in a quiet place where you’ll be able to hear your friends.
New medications might eventually be able to repair the damaged auditory nerve fibers. Still, these may not be available for a long time, and it’s best to focus on how you can effectively plan your life around the limitations of your hearing loss.
Can I Use OTC Hearing Aids?
To aid your hearing in noisy places you might consider the use of OTC Hearing aids, as these can help amplify speech in hard-to-hear environments. While it is a hearing aid, it is tailored for those who want to avoid the burden of expensive hearing aids or the complex process of purchasing one, as it can be acquired without a doctor's prescription.
However, in the case of hidden hearing loss (as hearing aids are unlikely to help you), OTC Hearing aids can be an affordable and accessible hearing asset.
The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources: