What is Hidden Hearing Loss?
The short answer? This is early hearing loss due to hearing nerve damage, which traditional hearing tests do not detect.
Hidden hearing loss is caused by damage to the connections between the hearing cells of the inner ear and the hearing nerve. Such nerve connection defects stay “hidden” during traditional hearing tests, which evaluate mostly the function of the inner ear hearing cells, not the hearing nerve.
As more and more of these connections are harmed, the brain receives messages that become increasingly weak and unclear. Especially, sorting out speech signals in background noise becomes more and more difficult.
Gap between symptoms and test results.
Typically, people report that their hearing is just fine in quiet places. Yet, as soon as it gets the least bit loud they struggle understanding speech and communication becomes difficult.
For younger people in whom nobody even suspects hearing loss this becomes quite an issue. They might do well in one-on-one situations. Yet, following classes at school or working in a sound-rich office is a challenge. Traditional hearing tests add to the puzzle because they show no or few signs of a loss. The gap between the symptoms and the test results is due to “hidden” hearing loss.
What causes this nerve damage?
Certainly, connections between hearing cells and hearing nerves tend to weaken and fail with advancing age. However, hidden hearing loss is mostly blamed on excessively loud sound exposures, an ongoing issue with young people. Noise causes immediate, damage and speeds up the aging of the ears. The scary thing is that the nerve connections are harmed before the hearing cells may show signs of distress.
Are there tests for hidden hearing loss?
Currently, there are no standardized test protocols for hidden loss. However, researchers are closing in on ways to unmask it. Some say that testing people’s understanding of speech in a quiet environment and against background noise is a way of detecting hidden losses. Considering the problem, this would make sense. Others feel that measuring how both ears and the brain work together in noisy places helps identify early hearing loss that otherwise might remain hidden
What to do?
First, in the interest of preventing hearing damage of any kind, protect the ears from noise both on and off the job.
Then, anyone—at any age—with difficulties understanding speech in background noise does well to consult an audiologist. The plan is to stop the damage and to get the information and help needed for maintaining quality of life. Therefore, a detailed description of symptoms combined with professional hearing tests is the first step in the right direction for getting to the core of the issue.
To learn about ears and hearing, please see my book on hearing loss: What Did You Say? An Unexpected Journey into the World of Hearing Loss, now in its second updated edition. Sharing my story and what I had to learn the hard way.