Although hearing tests are quick and painless, they can be a source of anxiety for some who don’t understand exactly what they entail. Perhaps you have a suspicion that you are losing hearing but are unsure. A hearing test and consultation with a hearing care professional is the right place to start. The following are a few of the things to expect at a hearing test, including the differences you might encounter.
The first step in assessing hearing ability is to have a conversation about your experiences and background. This hearing consultation will give your hearing care professional a sense of the potential causes and features of your ability. Some people experience hearing loss due to factors in their family background, while others have experienced workplace exposure to loud noise. Still others may have had illnesses or medical conditions such as allergies, head colds, or even earwax (cerumen) buildup that can impair hearing temporarily. Other health conditions can cause permanent hearing loss. With a sense of your background, your hearing care professional will be able to help you move from hearing loss to regained ability.
Hearing exams come in many forms, but the most common form of hearing exam is simply to be played a series of sounds and to notify the examiner which ones you hear. It can be that simple! Tests are often conducted in a soundproof room where fans, heaters, air conditioning, and plumbing will not get in the way of your hearing. You may be asked to wear headphones, earmuffs, or other noise-cancelling technology, as well. Some rooms come equipped with other amplification technology, particularly for testing children or infants. When you are played the sounds, they will come at different pitches from high to low, or frequencies, and a different volumes, or amplitudes. This combination of variation in sound can make it possible to identify which sounds at which levels of loudness are audible and which are not. When you hear a sound, you may be asked to raise your hand or to press a button. This portion of the test is called pure tone audiometry.
In addition to pure tone audiometry, some tests include a portion designed to assess your ability to understand speech. In this portion of a test, you may hear live or recorded speech at different volumes. You may hear different combinations of words, syllables, or phonemes to find out if some are more difficult than others to understand. You may also hear different types of voices speaking in various frequency ranges. When speech is played for you, your examiner may ask whether or not you can understand what was said. In some cases, the examiner may ask you to repeat back what you heard in order to test your understanding of these elements of speech.
A more rare type of hearing exam includes tympanometry, as well. This exam sends pressure to your eardrum to measure its responsiveness to sound. By working directly with the anatomy of the body, tympanometry bypasses and of the speech cognition issues that may get in the way of hearing, going directly to the physical source of sound perception. In any case, the test should not last very long, and you will quickly be back with your hearing care professional where they can interpret the results of your test.
Test results are reported in a graph called an audiogram. This simple chart renders your ability to hear at different frequencies and amplitudes. When hearing is lost, it tends to disappear from the highest frequencies first. Yet, the loudness of a sound can make it audible, so both variables are necessary to understand hearing ability. Your audiogram provides both kinds of information with the vertical axis depicting loudness and the horizontal axis depicting frequency. Each ear will be plotted separately, enabling your hearing care professional to understand if you have asymmetrical hearing loss between your two ears. Although your hearing care professional can interpret the results of your audiogram, these basic categories of hearing loss are helpful to understand:
- Normal hearing (0 to 25 dB)
- Mild hearing loss (26 to 40 dB)
- Moderate hearing loss (41 to 70 dB)
- Severe hearing loss (71 to 90 dB)
- Profound hearing loss (greater than 91 dB)