Hearing Loss

What is hearing loss?

Hearing loss is the full or partial inability to detect frequencies of sound. It's easiest to break down hearing loss by type. The two most common types are sensorineural and conductive. Both types of hearing loss can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired.

Sensorineural hearing loss

Sensorineural means a loss of function within the inner ear or with the connection to the brain. Factors that may cause this type of hearing loss include:

Congenital

Acquired

  • loud noise exposure
  • trauma
  • infections
  • damage from certain medications that can be harmful to the ears

Conductive hearing loss

Conductive hearing loss indicates a problem in the outer or middle ear, in which sound waves are not sent to the inner ear correctly. Conductive hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss in children and is usually acquired. Factors that may cause this type of hearing loss include:

Congenital

  • anomalies of the pinna (the outside of the ear)
  • anomalies of the tympanic membrane (eardrum)
  • anomalies of the external ear canal
  • anomalies of the ossicles (the three tiny bones that deliver the sound waves to the middle ear)

Acquired

  • excessive wax
  • foreign bodies in the ear canal, like beads or popcorn kernels
  • tumors of the middle ear
  • problems with the eustachian tube
  • ear infections, such as otitis media
  • chronic ear infections with fluid in the middle ear
  • perforation of the eardrum

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nearly 12,000 babies are born each year in the United States with a hearing impairment.

Parents are typically the first to notice their child's hearing loss. Without screening or testing, hearing loss could go unnoticed until your child is more than a year old. Hearing loss is more likely in premature babies and babies with respiratory problems who have required long-term use of breathing machines, those with previous infections, and those taking certain medications.

What are the treatment options for hearing loss?

Early intervention and detection of hearing loss is crucial; this will prevent your child from enduring additional problems with speech and language development. A healthcare team approach is normally used when a child is diagnosed with some degree of hearing loss. Some hearing problems are medically or surgically correctable. Other hearing problems are treated with hearing aids and speech and language therapy.

If a hearing problem is found, your audiologist and pediatrician will arrange for your child to be seen by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) and will guide you to other services to help your child learn to communicate.

The three most common types of treatment are:

  • Use of hearing aids: These electronic or battery-operated devices can amplify and change sound. A microphone receives the sound and converts it into sound waves. Then, the sound waves are converted into electrical signals.
  • Cochlear implant: This is a surgically placed appliance that helps to transmit electrical stimulation to the inner ear. Only certain children are candidates for this type of device. Ask your child's physician for more information.
  • Training in ASL and lip reading

How we care for hearing loss

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at Boston Children's Hospital cares for more than 500 children and their families each year. It's one of the country's largest, most comprehensive hearing-loss programs. The Program's works with multiple programs throughout Boston Children's including, the Habilitative Audiology Program, the Diagnostic Audiology Program and the Department of Otolaryngology and Communication Enhancement.