Making Good “Sense:” Speech and Hearing Basics

By Sara Hodon

Listen up! Your regular daily routine, including your job, might be causing some permanent damage to your hearing.

Maintaining good aural health isn’t a top priority for many of us; in fact, most adults would probably agree that hearing is one of the five senses they most take for granted. But a few factors, namely age and work environment, can take their toll on our hearing. And in almost all cases, delays in children’s speech acquisition and production are connected to some type of hearing disorder. “Anytime you have a child with a speech problem, the first thing you would do is a hearing test,” says Doug Widdowson, audiologist with Allen Audiology, Allentown. “It’s kind of like a computer—if it doesn’t go in, it doesn’t come out.” He says that hospitals are now required to test the hearing of newborns, which is done by an EEG that presents the sound waves and records the baby’s brain waves.

Children are also susceptible to middle ear infections, a common ailment that develops when negative ear pressure and fluid builds up in the ear. “That’s probably the next biggest problem after speech delays,” Widdowson says. “A lot of it has to do with the anatomy of a small ear.” The infection usually clears up with medication. If the infections persist – and chronic ear infections are  common for many children – a tube is placed in the eardrum and through the ear to help drain away some of the built-up fluid. Although uncomfortable and scary for children since it involves minor surgery, sometimes this is the only way to correct the problem. “If [the infection] stays around long enough, it’s going to delay your ability to hear normal speech and language and your normal speech and language,” adds Widdowson. Unfortunately these conditions can’t be prevented, but if parents notice a speech delay or their child seems to have trouble with their hearing, being proactive is key. “Start with your child’s physician,” Widdowson says. “If necessary, they’ll be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. If the child has a true sensory-neural hearing loss, this should be followed by an appointment with an audiologist who is trying to meet their needs.”

Adults, meanwhile, can take precautions to protect their hearing based on their environment and the type of work they do.  Unlike children, whose hearing difficulties are often connected to a speech delay, adults experience a physical, or sensory-neural, change in their hearing with the end organ of hearing itself—the tiny hairs on the outside of the ear—rather than the eardrum, canal, or earspace.  “Often the adult stops hearing the higher frequency sounds. When we don’t hear something well, we ask the other person to repeat themselves or we turn up the volume. Others often notice the problem before we do,” Widdowson says. Most adults don’t relish the idea of a hearing aid, but there have been tremendous improvements in the audiology field. Many of these devices fit right inside the ear canal and are practically invisible to others. And the device can be custom-fit to each wearer, so there’s little danger of an improper fit or having the device fall out. “There has to be appropriate amplification for hearing aid use,” says Widdowson. “It’s not just as simple as buying the hardware, but finding the right person who knows how to program the device to your level of hearing loss. Devices today are very sophisticated.”

The typical workplace is also chockfull of noisy distractions that can take a toll on the average adult’s hearing. Large machines in manufacturing facilities, heavy equipment on construction sites, and even office equipment like copiers and telephones can have damaging effects.

So how loud is too loud? Widdowson notes, “As a general rule of thumb, if it’s too loud for you to carry on a conversation with another person at a normal level at a normal distance, you should think about wearing hearing protection.” Workplaces need to follow the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) noise guidelines that state how loud something, i.e. a machine can be, and how long a person can be exposed to noise at that level. Most manufacturing facilities require their employees to wear foam earplugs on the shop floor; depending on a person’s job, different protection for different applications may be needed. “It takes someone educating you to show you what you need,” Widdowson says. “For example, if you’re going target shooting with a handgun, you can wear plugs and a covering on top of it. And if you’re in any kind of noisy environment, you want to get your hearing checked regularly.”

Besides investing in an assistive hearing device, there aren’t many treatment options for hearing loss, as the damage is permanent and irreversible. Tinnitus, a degenerative hearing condition that often affects musicians and other individuals who work around noise for a long period of time, is a generic term for any kind of head noise, Widdowson explains. “The single most effective treatment for the head noise is effective use of amplification, i.e., hearing aids. If we can bring back their acuity the new sound tends to mask their head noise. There aren’t any pills you can take, but there are treatments for some forms of tinnitus that help those with chronic head noise.”

And as for those portable music players that people of all ages like to wear, Widdowson warns that less really is more. “Hearing loss related to noise is all about the volume or intensity and the duration of the exposure. Logic dictates that the louder it is, the less you want to be listening to it. Almost every audio device out there has the capability of generating intensity levels loud enough to cause hearing loss if listened to long enough,” he says. The recommended usage for a personal music player is thirty minutes, an hour max.

Widdowson advises that if an adult is interested in looking into a hearing aid, doing the right kind of homework is essential. “See a qualified professional and find someone who has access to many different manufacturers and solutions,” he says. Don’t just take the word of the professional who says, ‘This will be better for you.’ We have a process that says it’s better for the customer. If it’s not right, we can send it back. There’s a right way and wrong way to do things.”

Doug Widdowson, Owner
Allen Audiology
401 N. 17th St.
Allentown, PA 18104

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