woman holding temples of head in pain

Difficulties During Communication Could Signal a Hearing Loss

Dr. T

Do you have hearing loss? You may not even know it. Hearing loss can be difficult to self-diagnose. All too often you can hear fine when speaking in quiet settings between another person, but struggle to hear in noisy settings such as crowded restaurants, bars, or concert halls. It can feel confusing when more than one person is speaking at once, which is easy to attribute to the chaos of a crowd—however when your hearing is normal, this really shouldn’t be an issue. If you’ve struggled to hear in a noisy setting, it’s time to consider the reality of a hidden hearing loss.

What is Hidden Hearing Loss?

A standard hearing exam tests your hearing in a soundproof room. For instance, the pure tone audiology test examines the quietest pitches, tones, and decibels you can detect in each ear. However, the world is not always quiet and definitely not soundproof. While these tests are very good at detecting many types of hearing loss common with old age or exposure to loud sounds, it can miss other kinds that occur within the brain.

Sensorineural hearing loss makes up 90 percent of all types of hearing loss and pertains to when the tiny hair-like cells called stereocilia become damaged or destroyed, interrupting the delivery of audio information to the brain. The majority of hearing exams are geared towards detecting this type of damage. This issue with hidden hearing loss is that it becomes an issue in noisy or crowded spaces, making it all too easy to go undiagnosed in a traditional hearing exam.

What is the Cause of Hidden Hearing Loss?

What causes hidden hearing loss? While sensorineural hearing loss occurs in the inner ear, hidden hearing loss most likely happens in the brain. To better understand the causes, extensive research at the University of Michigan has explored potential causes. Led by Dr. Gabriel Corfas, director of the Kresge Hearing Research Institute at Michigan Medicine’s department of otolaryngology, researchers published their findings in the Nature Communications journal and reported some interesting data on the subject.

The study proposes that perhaps one of the major reasons for hidden hearing loss may be the disruption of the Schwann cells in the brain. Schwann cells produce myelin, an insulator for neural pathways from the ears to the brain. When Schwann cells are disrupted, they cannot send information to the brain. Your body’s immune system produces inflammatory substances that potentially damage myelin, and can even kill the cells and much like stereocilia, they cannot be regenerated, leaving permanent damage.

Other Factors Cause Hidden Hearing Loss

Also occurring in the brain, Doctor Corfas’ team also discovered another possible cause for hidden hearing loss, due to a breakdown in the synapses that connect the cells of the inner ear with the neurons that will carry sound signals up to the brain. When this type of damage occurs, it can affect how the brain detects sounds in crowded environments, specifically struggling with how to prioritize them. This makes hearing in a crowd especially difficult as you may struggle to follow the person you are in conversation with as other people’s words and competing sounds are constantly slipping into your consciousness.

What May Cause Hidden Hearing Loss?

The study suggests that damage to the brain leading to hidden hearing loss is most likely caused by exposure to loud noise at work or during recreation. Many people don’t realize how much noise they are exposed to daily, but over time it can build up. Many are surprised to find that even listening to headphones can be so loud it can cause hidden and sensorineural hearing loss at an early age.

“Exposure to noise is increasing in our society, and children are exposing themselves to high levels of noise very early in life,” reports Corfas. “It’s clear that being exposed to high levels of sound might contribute to increases in hidden hearing loss”.

Treating Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a permanent condition, but it can be treated using hearing aids. These amazing devices will help you hear in quiet and noisy settings alike. To find out more don’t hesitate to contact us for a hearing exam today. We can test your hearing in standard ways as well as tests to detect a hidden hearing loss and find the best solution for you.