What To Know Before Buying Hearing Aids
Dr. Angel Rivera
When the time rolls around to purchase a new vehicle, most people invest a lot of time and research considering their vehicle needs.
Why should the search for the proper hearing aids be any different?
Like a new vehicle, new hearing aids can also be a hefty investment.
While they may not be as expensive as a brand new car, they are an important piece of equipment that deserves the same level of pre-purchase research and care.
The first hearing aid was commercially manufactured at the turn of the 20th century. Since then, hearing aids have helped raise the quality of life for millions of people suffering from disabling hearing loss.
Today the market is flooded with high-quality hearing aids, which can make choosing the best hearing aids quite a daunting task.
Stick around as we share everything you need to know before buying new hearing aids.
How Common Is Hearing Loss?
According to hearing loss statistics, roughly 15 percent of adults in the United States report hearing trouble.
Approximately 30 million people over the age of 12 have hearing loss in both ears. Figures are even more staggering as we look at global statistics.
The World Health Organization states that around five percent of the world’s population lives with disabling hearing loss — that's over 430 million people.
That makes hearing loss one of the leading causes of disability globally.
What Are the Types of Hearing Loss?
The auditory system is a complex network composed of the outer, middle, inner ear, and auditory nerve.
Together, these parts allow for normal hearing by converting sound waves into signals sent to the brain for processing.
Hearing loss typically occurs when issues arise within the inner ear.
The inner ear houses the cochlea (snail-shaped organ) and a vast network of hair cells.
These hair cells act as the primary sensory receptors, helping convert sound waves into electrical signals sent to the brain. Over time these hairs degenerate due to age and contribute to hearing loss.
This condition is known as age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) and is a type of hearing loss known as sensorineural hearing loss.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss.
Typically, sensorineural hearing loss occurs gradually as the hair cells or auditory nerve deteriorate or are damaged. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss can also occur, but it is far less common.
Some other potential causes for this type of hearing loss include Ménière's disease, cochlear otosclerosis, benign tumors, and even some medication side effects.
While sensorineural hearing loss is usually permanent, treatment options include hearing devices like hearing aids, but it all depends on the degree of hearing loss. A whole range of hearing aid options treat mild to moderate hearing loss.
There are also options for those with severe hearing loss; these hearing aids tend to be the most powerful and expensive.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss is another type of hearing loss.
This hearing loss usually results from trauma (fractures to bones in the middle ear) or obstruction (earwax impaction) in the ear.
Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound cannot pass through the outer, middle, or inner. This type of hearing loss can be temporary or permanent.
Are Hearing Aids Right for Me?
The only sure-fire way to know if hearing aids are right for you is to visit a hearing health specialist.
Binaural hearing, or the ability to hear in both ears, is usually tested at birth, but hearing loss is typically a condition that happens over time.
The only definitive way to screen for hearing loss is through a hearing evaluation (auditory test). Hearing care professionals can test for the prevalence of hearing impairments.
Hearing specialists include those in the audiology field, like audiologists and ENT (ear, nose, and throat) physicians, and are trained to test hearing and interpret data from the hearing test (audiogram).
Some common signs and symptoms of hearing loss could include the following.
- Tinnitus or ringing in the ears
- Having to increase the volume of the radio, television, etc
- Asking others to repeat themselves constantly
- Having to read lips to understand what people are saying to you
- Finding it hard to tell where sounds are coming from
- Fatigue at the end of the day from the struggle of trying to listen
- Struggling to understand speech in noisy environments
Once you’ve been diagnosed with hearing loss, a hearing professional will likely review your treatment options to address your specific hearing needs.
These options will vary depending on the type of hearing loss you have as well as the severity.
Treatment options could range from non-medical interventions like simple amplification from hearing aids to more involved surgical interventions like cochlear implants.
How Can I Find the Right Hearing Aids?
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) defines a hearing aid as a small electronic device that helps amplify and magnify the sound vibrations that enter the ear.
These hearing devices amplify sound vibrations that enter the ear, making them louder to help the user both listen and communicate better.
All hearing aids are composed of three basic parts: a microphone, amplifier, and receiver (speaker).
The microphone receives the sound waves and converts them into electrical signals. The amplifier increases them from there and delivers them to the receiver.
Understanding Your Options
Once you’ve determined that hearing aids are right for you, the work begins in becoming familiar with all the different types of hearing aids.
Each ear hearing aid style has unique features, functionality, and warranty options.
The cost of hearing aids also varies greatly, from expensive, high-tech options to less expensive over-the-counter hearing aids (OTC).
Furthermore, it is important to understand that all hearing aids work similarly. Hearing aids operate differently depending on the type of electronics they use.
Analog and Digital Hearing Aids
The two main types of electronics used in hearing aids are analog and digital. In short, analog hearing aids turn sound waves into electrical signals.
From there, electrical signals get sent to the hearing aid amplifier.
These types of hearing aids can be customized and programmed for each user.
This process is done by the audiologist and hearing aid retailer.
Like analog, digital hearing aids also convert sound waves. However, the difference is in how they get converted.
Instead of electrical signals, the sound waves from digital hearing aids get converted into numerical codes — similar to the binary code of a computer.
Typically, digital hearing aids offer much more in the way of programming and flexibility. They are also more expensive than analog hearing aid options.
What Are the Different Styles of Hearing Aids?
Aside from their price and unique features, hearing aids also differ in style.
The style determines where the hearing aid goes in your ear.
Some styles are more discreet than others.
The bottom line is simple, you want the hearing aid style that will match your type of hearing loss, lifestyle, and budget — it also helps if they’re comfortable.
Most hearing aids can fit into four distinct category styles:
- Behind-the-ear (BTE)
- In-the-ear (ITE)
- Canal: completely-in-canal (CIC) and in-the-canal (ITC)
- Receiver-in-canal (RIC)
BTEs are generally the largest style of hearing aids.
They hook over the top of the ear and rest just behind it. This is where the plastic case sits, which houses the electronics.
Typically, a small tube joins the case to a custom earmold that fits inside the ear canal. BTE hearing aids work for most degrees of hearing loss, especially severe hearing loss.
- Advantages of BTE. The controls are easy to manipulate on BTE. They also tend to have larger, long-lasting rechargeable batteries and are easier to clean than other styles.
- Drawbacks of BTE. They are the largest and most visible style of hearing aid. BTEs also pick up more background noise if not snuggly fit.
ITE hearing aids are smaller than BTE and come in two styles. Full shell ITEs fill most of the outer ear, while the half shell style typically only fills the lower part of the outer ear.
Most ITE features directional microphones and telecoils. A telecoil allows users to receive sound directly through the circuitry rather than through its microphone, cutting down on feedback. ITE are good options for mild to severe hearing loss.
- Advantages of ITE. These usually have longer battery lives compared to smaller styles. In addition to directional microphones and telecoils, some ITEs feature wireless Bluetooth connectivity and streaming.
- Drawbacks of ITE. They are less visible than BTEs, but still more visible than smaller styles. ITEs are more prone to earwax buildup.
In-the-Canal (ITC) and Completely-in-Canal (CIC)
Canal-style hearing aids are made to fit right into the ear canal and are available in two styles: in-the-canal (ITC) and completely-in-canal (CIC).
These are the smallest and most discreet style of healing aids and are custom fit to the shape and size of the user’s ear canal.
- Advantages of canal hearing aids. They fit deep inside the ear canal, making them virtually invisible. They’re also less sensitive to feedback and background noise.
- Drawbacks of canal hearing aids. While they’re the most discreet, they’re also most susceptible to clogging from earwax and moisture buildup. Also, they typically have the shortest battery life.
The RIC style of hearing aid is smaller than BTEs and sits just behind the ear. One major difference between RICs and BTEs, aside from size, is the connection from electronics to the receiver.
BTEs use a tube, while RICs use a small wire to connect to the receiver. This design can help the ear canal remain more open.
- Advantages of RIC. They’re less visible than BTE and tend to produce much less feedback. RICs tend to have longer-lasting, rechargeable batteries compared to canal-style hearing aids.
- Drawbacks of RIC. They’re more prone to earwax clogging than BTEs. Also, RICs are more susceptible to moisture than BTE-style hearing aids.
Additional Hearing Aid Features To Consider
- Wireless Connectivity. Most new hearing aids feature a wireless interface, which is important if you’re looking to hook up to Bluetooth devices like smartphones.
- Noise Reduction Settings. Some hearing aids feature settings that allow you to adjust the amount of background noise in noisy environments.
- Feedback Suppression. Allows you to quell high-pitched sounds and minimize feedback into the hearing aid microphone.
Where Can I Buy Hearing Aids?
In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took steps to improve hearing aid accessibility, no longer requiring adults to get a medical evaluation before purchasing hearing aids.
While numerous retailers still sell hearing aids in-store, the FDA has also opened the door for online over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid sales. OTC hearing aids are much more affordable for lower-income people, some even offering a trial period.
It is important to check your coverage before buying as some healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid Advantage may cover some medical device costs like hearing aids.
If you’re having issues determining the best place to start when you’re on the hunt for hearing aids, you can always reach out to a hearing care specialist or follow up with your audiologist.
Buying new hearing aids can be stressful if you’re not prepared. Thankfully, better hearing is possible, and plenty of affordable options are available to fit most any need.
Looking for more articles on all things hearing loss? Explore the USA Rx Hearing Loss Hub here for all the info you need.