To put it simply: Hearing aids supplement our hearing. But how exactly do they work? Firstly, hearing aids are designed to receive sounds from the outside world, just like a healthy ear would do. To do so, they include microphones as part of the design, which take sounds and convert them into vibrations, and then into electrical impulses.
However, at this stage these signals are often too weak, and need to be amplified before they can be converted into something wearers can actually hear. Amplifiers inside the hearing aid casing do the job, turning even very quiet noises into signals that can be turned into audible noise.
The final part of the hearing aid is (usually) the speaker, which takes these amplified signals and produces noise. The precise sound level can almost always be finely calibrated, depending on the environment and the wearer’s degree of deafness. Many hearing aids can also be calibrated to amplify high or low frequency sounds, again, depending on the user’s needs.
What is a hearing aid?
A hearing aid is a small electronic device that you wear in or behind your ear. It makes some sounds louder so that a person with hearing loss can listen, communicate, and participate more fully in daily activities. A hearing aid can help people hear more in both quiet and noisy situations. However, only about one out of five people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one.
A hearing aid has three basic parts: a microphone, amplifier, and speaker. The hearing aid receives sound through a microphone, which converts the sound waves to electrical signals and sends them to an amplifier. The amplifier increases the power of the signals and then sends them to the ear through a speaker.
How can hearing aids help?
Hearing aids are primarily useful in improving the hearing and speech comprehension of people who have hearing loss that results from damage to the small sensory cells in the inner ear, called hair cells. This type of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss. The damage can occur as a result of disease, aging, or injury from noise or certain medicines.
A hearing aid magnifies sound vibrations entering the ear. Surviving hair cells detect the larger vibrations and convert them into neural signals that are passed along to the brain. The greater the damage to a person’s hair cells, the more severe the hearing loss, and the greater the hearing aid amplification needed to make up the difference. However, there are practical limits to the amount of amplification a hearing aid can provide. In addition, if the inner ear is too damaged, even large vibrations will not be converted into neural signals. In this situation, a hearing aid would be ineffective.
Do all hearing aids work the same way?
Hearing aids work differently depending on the electronics used. The two main types of electronics are analog and digital.
Analog aids convert sound waves into electrical signals, which are amplified. Analog/adjustable hearing aids are custom built to meet the needs of each user. The aid is programmed by the manufacturer according to the specifications recommended by your audiologist. Analog/programmable hearing aids have more than one program or setting. An audiologist can program the aid using a computer, and you can change the program for different listening environments—from a small, quiet room to a crowded restaurant to large, open areas, such as a theater or stadium. Analog/programmable circuitry can be used in all types of hearing aids. Analog aids usually are less expensive than digital aids.
Digital aids convert sound waves into numerical codes, similar to the binary code of a computer, before amplifying them. Because the code also includes information about a sound’s pitch or loudness, the aid can be specially programmed to amplify some frequencies more than others. Digital circuitry gives an audiologist more flexibility in adjusting the aid to a user’s needs and to certain listening environments. These aids also can be programmed to focus on sounds coming from a specific direction. Digital circuitry can be used in all types of hearing aids.