How Do Hearing Aids Actually Work?
How do hearing aids work? I've often thought it was a little like magic. And, if you think about it, hearing aids have a magical effect on our lives! They give you the ability to hear and communicate more clearly than you can without hearing aids. And there's much going on behind the scenes than just sticking a device in your ear and experiencing a louder world.
Hearing aids work via a very complex process, and there's a whole lot of technology that fits into these tiny but mighty devices. We spoke to Christina Callahan, Au.D., Head of Clinical Audiology at Lively, to learn about the inner workings of hearing aids and answer the question that you may be wondering—truly, how do hearing aids work?
How the natural process of hearing works
To fully understand how hearing aids work, it's important to have a basic understanding of how hearing works in general. When sound enters into the ear, passing through its tiny parts, auditory nerves send signals to the brain. The brain then makes sense of what you're hearing, allowing you to comprehend sounds, words, and sentences.
"It's a very complex process. Your ear naturally has a lot of really intricate ways to capture sound so that you can hear something as soft as a whisper, but tolerate something as loud as a fire engine," explains Callahan. "You have this really wide range of hearing that the human ear is capable of. That is not a simple process to reproduce in technology."
So—how is that natural wonder reproduced in technology?
The parts of the hearing aid
All the parts of the hearing aid work together using technology to attempt to reproduce the original workings of someone's natural hearing, giving them back what they've lost due to hearing loss— whether the cause is loud noise exposure, aging, or a ruptured eardrum.
A hearing aid has four typical main components, all crucial to its functionality. These component include:
The microphone, as you can imagine, is what picks up the sound from your surroundings. In hearing aids, the microphones are unique in that they're very small, yet still capable of picking up very subtle sounds and converting them to electrical signals.
Digital signal processor
The electrical signals generated by the microphone are analyzed by the signal processor. Some signal processors are advanced enough to tell the difference between speaking and background noises, which helps the hearing aid amplify only the sounds that would be useful for the wearer. Either way, the signal processor is the piece that determines how to make changes to the inputs from the microphone.
The amplifier takes electrical signals from the signal processor and increases the power of the signals that need to be boosted for better hearing. The degree of amplification is customized for the wearer of the hearing aids, depending on their level of hearing loss and what type of sounds they need extra help hearing.
The digital codes and electrical signals created by the amplifier will be received and turned back into sound that's delivered into your ears by the speaker at a volume that's easier for you to hear. Voila!
The most advanced part of a hearing aid
According to Callahan, the digital technology within the processor has made huge advancements within the past 20 to 30 years, and is what really makes a difference for people, since this is what can make words and music sound clearer, not simply louder. She says, "The processor helps say, ‘How do we compress this world of sound in a way that this person can appreciate it and understand it and function well?'"
This is what sets digital hearing aids apart from older analog hearing aids, since analog hearing aids amplify all sound that the microphone picks up, rather than being able to distinguish, as do digital hearing aids, between speech and background noise.
Importance of hearing aid technology
With all of this new technological advancement in the digital processors of hearing aids, people with hearing loss are able to hear more clearly than ever. For folks experiencing hearing loss, it isn't just about things sounding too quiet. Hearing loss can be of different severities, and the loss can be related to different environs, pitches, or frequencies.
Some people may be able to hear how loud or soft something is, but have trouble hearing certain sounds. For example, Callahan says, "You might be able to hear ‘ooo, ahh, eee,' —but not able to hear the difference between ‘T' and ‘P.'" Not being able to distinguish between certain sounds can make it really difficult and frustrating for someone with hearing loss to communicate, because it can make words blend together and sound indistinct.
"Hearing aids are able to be programmed and tuned specifically based on the actual deficit that the person has in terms of their hearing," Callahan explains. "You can give them back what they need and not overdo what they don't, and that's where you're not just making things louder, you're making them clear."
Modern hearing aid processors can also work to amplify sounds that "matter" and downplay the ones that can get in the way. An example that Callahan gives is the technology being able to distinguish speech that is important to hear versus the sounds of footsteps or crinkling paper.
Adjustments to make hearing aids work their best
You may have heard about the need to get regular hearing aid adjustments. It can take a little bit of trial and error to get the hearing aids to function perfectly for your unique needs, especially at the beginning. Your audiologist will be able to make programming adjustments to ensure sounds are clear and the device is comfortable for you. If something doesn't feel right, don't hesitate to contact your audiologist so they can tweak the settings to make the hearing aids work their very best for you as an individual.
Working together with an audiologist and giving hearing aids a chance is a great way to get back to the way you used to be able to hear, or at least close to the way you used to be able to hear. Hearing aids work great at their job— experiments show that over 90% of people who use hearing aids report a greater quality of life when using the devices as opposed to before they started using them.
The way that hearing aids work is life changing for many people. That's why we're so proud to offer a much more affordable and accessible option for hearing aids here at Lively.