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Hearing Loss Solutions

Hearing Aid Parts

Hearing aids are fairly simple devices, consisting of four basic parts:

  1. A microphone picks up sound from the environment and converts it into an electrical signal, which it sends to the amplifier.
  2. An amplifier increases the volume of the sound and sends it to the receiver.
  3. A receiver/speaker changes the electrical signal back into sound and sends it into the ear. Then those impulses are sent to the brain.
  4. A battery provides power to the hearing aid.

Hearing aids aren't effective for everyone. Hair cells in the inner ear must pick up the vibrations that the hearing aid sends and convert those vibrations into nerve signals. So, you need to have at least some hair cells in the inner ear for it to work. And, even if some hair cells remain, a hearing aid won't completely restore normal hearing.

Types of Hearing Aids

People with hearing loss have several hearing aid styles from which to choose. Generally, the smaller the hearing aid, the more it costs and the shorter its battery life.

In the ear (ITE): This large hearing aid works well for people with mild to severe hearing loss. It fits completely in the bowl of the ear. Because it is so large, the ITE hearing aid is among the most visible of styles, but the battery lasts longer than in smaller aids, and it can accommodate directional microphones (more on that later) and other added features.

In the canal (ITC): The ITC hearing aid works only for mild to moderate hearing loss. It is customized to fit the size and shape of the person's ear canal. Although this hearing aid is inconspicuous, its small size makes it difficult to adjust and change the battery. Some ITC hearing aids come with a remote control to make changing the settings easier. Also, users sometimes experience feedback noise with this type of hearing aid because the microphone and receiver sit close together.

Completely in the canal (CIC): This hearing aid is also appropriate for mild to moderate hearing loss, and it's even smaller than the ITC hearing aid. In fact, it's so small that a user must pull on a small wire to remove it from his ear. Because it fits completely in the ear canal, the CIC hearing aid is barely visible. Again, though, its small size makes it difficult to adjust and use added features. It's also more expensive than larger hearing aids.

Behind the ear (BTE): The BTE hearing aid can help with all types of hearing loss, from mild to profound. The electronics are in a case that sits just behind the ear. The case connects by a piece of clear tubing to a plastic piece called an earmold, which sits inside the ear. Sound travels from the earmold into the ear. This powerful and adjustable hearing aid can accommodate progressive hearing loss, as well as growth, which makes it ideal for children. However, its size and the tubing attaching the electronics to the earmold make it very visible. Also, the BTE hearing aid can cause feedback if it's not fitted correctly.

Behind the ear open fit: This newer version of the BTE model solves the problem of visibility. It is so small that it can barely be seen. A tiny device sits behind the ear and is attached by a tube to a miniscule speaker inside the ear canal. This hearing aid doesn't require an impression for fitting, and it provides better sound quality than ITE hearing aids. The downside is that it works only on people with mild hearing loss who can still hear low- and mid-frequency sounds.

Digital vs. Analog

Analog hearing aids amplify sounds -- the trouble is they amplify all sounds equally. So while your sister is recounting stories of her recent vacation, her voice is being drowned out by the competing sounds of the television, air conditioner and vacuum cleaner. Some analog hearing aids are programmable, meaning that they can hold separate settings for different listening situations. You can "change the channel" to adjust certain sounds louder or softer, depending on your preferences and hearing loss. But because they aren't as sensitive as digital hearing aids, analog hearing aids are being gradually phased out.

The vast majority of hearing aids sold in the United States today are digital. Although they are more expensive than analog hearing aids, digital hearing aids provide much clearer sound quality. Digital hearing aids contain a computer chip, which analyzes the sound based on the person's hearing loss and listening situation, and then amplifies it in a way that accommodates for the volume and pitch of incoming sounds. It even adjusts for feedback. Like analog hearing aids, digital aids can be programmed for a variety of listening environments.

Hearing Aid Accessories

The most basic and essential component of any hearing aid is the battery. Without it, the hearing aid won't work. Most hearing aids use zinc-air cells, which are powered by oxygen, but a few use mercury batteries. The size of the hearing aid dictates how long a battery will last. Larger hearing aids have bigger batteries, which can last for about two weeks. Smaller batteries work for three to five days, on average.

In addition to the basic components of the hearing aid, you can add a couple of special features to enhance the quality of sound you're receiving:

A directional microphone allows you to hear sounds directly in front of you more clearly than sounds behind you and to the sides, so that you can focus on conversations without worrying about annoying background noise. You can switch between a directional microphone and regular microphone, depending on your listening situation. Directional microphones will fit only on the larger hearing aids.

A telecoil allows you to switch from your normal hearing aid microphone to the "T" setting in order to filter out environmental sounds when you're on the phone. Telecoils work only with hearing-aid-compatible phones. (All wired phones manufactured today must be hearing-aid-compatible, but many cordless and cell phones aren't compatible.) Many theaters, places of worship and auditoriums have induction-loop systems, which will also work with your hearing aid's "T" setting.

Telecoils aren't the only devices that can help people with hearing loss use the phone. Amplified phones have a louder ringer, as well as flashing lights, to signal incoming calls. Text phones transcribe the call into text for people who are severely hearing impaired. A loopset has a wire loop that goes around the neck and connects to a mobile phone. The loop sends sound from the phone to the hearing aid and filters out background noise.

If you find that you still have to turn the TV volume way up to hear it, you might benefit from direct audio input. Many hearing aids can be plugged directly into the television, computer, CD player, and radio for clearer sound.

Research to Improve Hearing Aids

Hearing aids available today are smaller and more powerful than ever, and researchers are aiming for even higher sound quality in the future. They're looking for ways to better amplify the sound signal and reduce feedback using the latest computer technology.

One avenue of research is focusing on a very unusual subject -- the fly Ormia ochracea. This tiny fly has very precise hearing, which allows it to determine the source of a sound with uncanny ease. Scientists are modeling directional microphones after the fly's ears. The new microphones will help amplify sounds from certain directions, while suppressing sounds from other directions to help people focus on conversations when they are surrounded by background noise.

This article written by Stephanie Watson.

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