TREATMENT: Disorders of the Sense of Hearing
In general, conductive hearing losses are amenable to surgical correction, whereas sensorineural hearing losses are usually managed medically. Atresia of the ear canal can be surgically repaired, often with significant improvement in hearing. Tympanic membrane perforations due to chronic otitis media or trauma can be repaired with an outpatient tympanoplasty. Likewise, conductive hearing loss associated with otosclerosis can be treated by stapedectomy, which is successful in >95% of cases. Tympanostomy tubes allow the prompt return of normal hearing in individuals with middle ear effusions. Hearing aids are effective and well tolerated in patients with conductive hearing losses.
Patients with mild, moderate, and severe sensorineural hearing losses are regularly rehabilitated with hearing aids of varying configuration and strength. Hearing aids have been improved to provide greater fidelity and have been miniaturized. The current generation of hearing aids can be placed entirely within the ear canal, thus reducing any stigma associated with their use. In general, the more severe the hearing impairment, the larger the hearing aid required for auditory rehabilitation. Digital hearing aids lend themselves to individual programming, and multiple and directional microphones at the ear level may be helpful in noisy surroundings. Because all hearing aids amplify noise as well as speech, the only absolute solution to the problem of noise is to place the microphone closer to the speaker than the noise source. This arrangement is not possible with a self-contained, cosmetically acceptable device. A significant limitation of rehabilitation with a hearing aid is that although it is able to enhance detection of sound with amplification, it cannot restore clarity of hearing that is lost with presbycusis.
Patients with unilateral deafness have difficulty with sound localization and reduced clarity of hearing in background noise. They may benefit from a CROS (contralateral routing of signal) hearing aid in which a microphone is placed on the hearing-impaired side and the sound is transmitted to the receiver placed on the contralateral ear. The same result may be obtained with a bone-anchored hearing aid (BAHA), in which a hearing aid clamps to a screw integrated into the skull on the hearing-impaired side. Like the CROS hearing aid, the BAHA transfers the acoustic signal to the contralateral hearing ear, but it does so by vibrating the skull. Patients with profound deafness on one side and some hearing loss in the better ear are candidates for a BICROS hearing aid; it differs from the CROS hearing aid in that the patient wears a hearing aid, and not simply a receiver, in the better ear. Unfortunately, while CROS and BAHA devices provide benefit, they do not restore hearing in the deaf ear. Only cochlear implants can restore hearing (see below). Increasingly, cochlear implants are being investigated for the treatment of patients with single-sided deafness; early reports show great promise in not only restoring hearing but also improving sound localization and performance in background noise.
In many situations, including lectures and the theater, hearing-impaired persons benefit from assistive devices that are based on the principle of having the speaker closer to the microphone than any source of noise. Assistive devices include infrared and frequency-modulated (FM) transmission as well as an electromagnetic loop around the room for transmission to the individual’s hearing aid. Hearing aids with telecoils can also be used with properly equipped telephones in the same way.
In the event that the hearing aid provides inadequate rehabilitation, cochlear implants may be appropriate (Fig. 29-4). Criteria for implantation include severe to profound hearing loss with open-set sentence cognition of ≤40% under best aided conditions. Worldwide, more than 300,000 hearing-impaired individuals have received cochlear implants. Cochlear implants are neural prostheses that convert sound energy to electrical energy and can be used to stimulate the auditory division of the eighth nerve directly. In most cases of profound hearing impairment, the auditory hair cells are lost but the ganglionic cells of the auditory division of the eighth nerve are preserved. Cochlear implants consist of electrodes that are inserted into the cochlea through the round window, speech processors that extract acoustical elements of speech for conversion to electrical currents, and a means of transmitting the electrical energy through the skin. Patients with implants experience sound that helps with speech reading, allows open-set word recognition, and helps in modulating the person’s own voice. Usually, within the first 3–6 months after implantation, adult patients can understand speech without visual cues. With the current generation of multichannel cochlear implants, nearly 75% of patients are able to converse on the telephone.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first hybrid cochlear implant for the treatment of high-frequency hearing loss. Patients with presbyacusis typically have normal low-frequency hearing, while suffering from high-frequency hearing loss associated with loss of clarity that cannot always be adequately rehabilitated with a hearing aid. However, these patients are not candidates for conventional cochlear implants because they have too much residual hearing. The hybrid implant has been specifically designed for this patient population; it has a shorter electrode than a conventional cochlear implant and can be introduced into the cochlea atraumatically, thus preserving low-frequency hearing. Individuals with a hybrid implant use their own natural low-frequency “acoustic” hearing and rely on the implant for providing “electrical” high-frequency hearing. Patients who have received the hybrid implant perform better on speech testing in both quiet and noisy backgrounds.
For individuals who have had both eighth nerves destroyed by trauma or bilateral vestibular schwannomas (e.g., neurofibromatosis type 2), brainstem auditory implants placed near the cochlear nucleus may provide auditory rehabilitation.
Tinnitus often accompanies hearing loss. As for background noise, tinnitus can degrade speech comprehension in individuals with hearing impairment. Therapy for tinnitus is usually directed toward minimizing the appreciation of tinnitus. Relief of the tinnitus may be obtained by masking it with background music. Hearing aids are also helpful in tinnitus suppression, as are tinnitus maskers, devices that present a sound to the affected ear that is more pleasant to listen to than the tinnitus. The use of a tinnitus masker is often followed by several hours of inhibition of the tinnitus. Antidepressants have been shown to be beneficial in helping patients cope with tinnitus.
Hard-of-hearing individuals often benefit from a reduction in unnecessary noise in the environment (e.g., radio or television) to enhance the signal-to-noise ratio. Speech comprehension is aided by lip reading; therefore, the impaired listener should be seated so that the face of the speaker is well illuminated and easily seen. Although speech should be in a loud, clear voice, one should be aware that in sensorineural hearing losses in general and in hard-of-hearing elderly in particular, recruitment (abnormal perception of loud sounds) may be troublesome. Above all, optimal communication cannot take place without both parties giving it their full and undivided attention.