How can you test your hearing?

July 10, 2015

Checking your hearing

If your hearing loss can't be rectified by a simple change in prescription or by clearing a wax blockage, don't worry. There's tons that can be done to improve your hearing and make day-to-day life much easier.

First, your doctor or audiologist will assess your hearing level, using one or more of the following tests:

How can you test your hearing?

Whispered voice test

In this simple screening test, the tester stands at arm's length (about 60 centimetres or two feet) behind you — so you can't lip read — and whispers words or numbers which you are asked to repeat. Each ear is tested separately, while you block the other one with your fingertip. If you can't hear a whisper the tester may gradually increase the volume of speech.

This is not a particularly accurate measure but, as a rough guide, the volume of speech needed to hear equates to these degrees of hearing loss:

  • Quiet whisper: normal hearing
  • Loud whisper: hearing loss 20 to 30 decibels (dB)
  • Quiet voice: hearing loss 30 to 45 dB
  • Loud voice: hearing loss 45 to 60 dB
  • Shout: hearing loss 60 to 80 dB

Pure-tone audiometry

The most accurate means of assessing any hearing loss is the pure-tone audiogram. It involves the use of an electronic device called an audiometer that produces sounds of different volumes and pitch to identify your hearing threshold — the lowest intensity at which you can hear particular sounds.

You are usually asked to sit in a soundproof room or booth wearing headphones and to indicate by pushing a button when you can hear a series of sounds. "Normal" hearing is detecting most frequencies at 20 decibels (dB) or less. The results are plotted on a chart called an audiogram and can also determine the type of hearing loss — conductive, sensorineural or mixed.

Other tests

If your hearing loss is suspected to be sensorineural in origin (due to a signalling problem in the inner ear or auditory nerve), you may be advised to have an otoacoustic emission test. This measures the responses of your cochlea to sounds produced by a probe resting in your ear canal, in order to assess how well the hair cells in your inner ear are functioning. You don't have to do anything, and it doesn't hurt.

Another test measures your auditory brainstem response — how the hearing centres in your brain react to sounds. A series of sounds is transmitted through headphones or an earpiece placed in your outer ear canal while you wear electrodes on your scalp and earlobes to detect brainwaves that occur in response. Again, this is painless and you don't need to do anything — the test can even be done on someone asleep or in a coma. It's used to check babies with suspected hearing problems, those who find audiometry difficult to perform, and sometimes for adults with head injuries or to distinguish other types of sensorineural hearing loss.

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