March 1, 2012

Ask the Audiologist: Can wearing a hearing aid cause more hearing loss?

margaretBy Margaret Christiansen, AU.D, CCC-A
Audiology Consultants, P.C.

This is a common question posed by concerned hearing aid users. We are all told that exposure to excessive amounts of noise can lead to hearing loss. Rest assured that appropriately fit hearing aids will not lead to further hearing loss. Hearing aids are carefully set by the audiologist or hearing aid dispenser to provide the appropriate amount of sound for an individual’s hearing loss, without providing so much sound that hearing damage occurs. Modern hearing aids are able to control how much sound enters the ear, and this can be adjusted for each individual based on their needs.

Even though hearing aids have noise limiting features, it does not give an individual the ability to be around any amount of noise without concern for noise-induced hearing loss. Just as an individual without hearing aids needs to be conscious of the amount of noise they are exposed to, an individual with a hearing aid needs to remove their hearing aids and wear hearing protection when exposed to high levels of noise.

Turning your hearing aid off does not double as ear protection. Most hearing aids have a small vent in the earpiece, which would allow sound to leak into the ear. Removing hearing aids and wearing hearing protection is the best defense against noise.

Another common concern about hearing aid use is that wearing hearing aids will make your ears “lazy.” When people wear hearing aids, they get accustomed to hearing and miss the sounds a hearing aid provides when the aids are not worn. This is not because hearing has further worsened or the ears are dependent on hearing aids. This is simply your brain being aware of what things are supposed to sound like again and missing those sounds when they are gone.

This brings me to another common concern regarding hearing aids, and actually the opposite of the question posed. That is, will my hearing get worse if I don’t wear hearing aids? The simple answer to this question is no. We do not “strain” or further damage our ears by not wearing hearing aids. We simply miss out on sounds and do not get the needed help for our hearing by not wearing hearing aids when it is appropriate. Hearing loss is going to progress or not progress regardless of hearing aid use.

Research has shown that untreated hearing loss can negatively affect sound clarity or understanding ability. Just as a muscle that is not exercised gets weaker, our brain reallocates function from parts that are not being used or activated. This can lead to a decrease in understanding as a result of untreated hearing loss. The good news is that, again, like a muscle, function can return once hearing aids are used and the parts of the brain responsible for certain sounds are activated again.

It is natural to have questions and concerns regarding something as important as your ears and hearing. Your audiologist is a good resource to help address your questions, so do not hesitate
to ask.