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How Hearing Aids Work

Thanks to advances in hearing aid technology, getting help is easier than ever. Here's everything to know.

Taylor Freitas Contributor
Taylor Freitas is a freelance writer and has contributed to publications including LA Weekly, Safety.com, and Hospitality Technology. She holds a B.A. in Print and Digital Journalism from the University of Southern California.
Taylor Freitas
4 min read
Woman trying on over-the-ear hearing aid
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Late last year, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that certain types of hearing aids can now be sold over the counter, allowing individuals with hearing loss to buy these critical medical devices from pharmacies, online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores such as Best Buy and Walmart.

If you think you're a good candidate for over-the-counter hearing aids, you might be wondering how they work. Here's everything you should know.

What is a hearing aid?

Before we explain how hearing aids work, let's take a more in-depth look at what they are. Hearing aids are electronic devices that can be worn either completely or partially in your ear to amplify sounds, helping you communicate better with the people around you and hear what's going on in everyday life.

There are several styles of hearing aids, but we'll focus on three of the most common: in-the-ear, behind-the-ear and in-canal. Each type serves the same basic purpose (amplifying sounds so that they're audible to folks with hearing loss), but they look different.

In-the-ear hearing aids are small and discreet and, as the name suggests, much of the device fits snugly inside your ear. Its battery and volume control functions are located toward the front of the hearing aids, making them easy to control. These hearing aids aren't typically recommended for people with a history of heavy earwax build-up. Some people find that this style of hearing aid increases the echo of their own voice.

Next, behind-the-ear hearing aids are bigger and cradle the back of your ear like a pair of glasses, with a tube connecting the hearing aid to an earpiece inside your ear. Since they're clunkier than in-the-ear devices, they're good for people who don't want to risk losing their hearing aids or who want hearing aids that are easy to clean.

Finally, in-canal hearing aids are compact and less visible than the previous two styles because they hide within your ear canal. Like in-the-ear devices, however, they aren't great for people with lots of earwax since they can block the speaker in the hearing aids.

According to the Mayo Clinic, hearing aids can benefit people with mild to severe hearing loss, but some styles are better than others depending on your condition. For instance, in-canal hearing aids are ideal for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, while in-the-ear and behind-the-ear are appropriate for almost any level of hearing loss.

Do hearing aids really improve hearing?

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The primary purpose of hearing aids is to improve your hearing. With that said, there are a few important caveats to mention.

Most importantly, these devices won't be effective for more severe hearing issues. If your hearing loss is extreme or your inner ear is too damaged, for example, hearing aids are unlikely to be a viable option for you. In cases like these, you may be able to improve your hearing through surgery or another type of medical device.

If you are a good candidate for hearing aids, you should have a realistic understanding of what they can -- and can't -- do. For starters, wearing hearing aids isn't like getting laser eye surgery. The devices aren't a permanent fix for your hearing loss, and you'll need to wear them to experience their benefits. Also, unlike eyeglasses or contact lenses, hearing aids can't restore your hearing to normal.

How sound is processed in hearing aids

While there are two main types of electronics used in hearing aids (more on that later), they both work in the same way. In short, the device is composed of three parts: a microphone, an amplifier and a speaker. These parts work together to improve your hearing.

First, the microphone on the hearing aids picks up the sounds around you. The sound is then sent to an amplifier, where they're made louder. Finally, the amplified sound is pushed into your ear through a speaker, so you can hear it.

Analog aids

Analog aids are the older of the two types of technology. They work by converting all of the sound around you -- including voices and background noise -- into electrical signals, which are then amplified into your ear. 

You won't want to hear all of these sounds at the same volume, so your audiologist will need to program your analog aids with different settings. Once they've done this, you'll be able to switch between these various settings so that you can hear appropriately in different venues -- whether you're at a concert, sports game, restaurant or at home.

Digital aids

On the other hand, digital aids are more technologically advanced and work like mini computers. Instead of converting sound waves into electrical signals, they change them into numerical codes, which include information about the sound's volume and pitch. The sounds are then duplicated and sent into your ear.

Because of the more advanced technology in digital aids, the sounds produced are more precise and accurate than analog aids. They're also better at cutting out background noise and are more customizable for wearers' specific needs.

Bottom line

Doctor helps patient wear hearing aids
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Whether it's caused by aging, loud noise or disease, experiencing hearing loss can be upsetting. Fortunately, though, wearing hearing aids can make a significant improvement in your quality of life.

If you think that you could benefit from hearing aids, your first step is to speak with your doctor or audiologist. They'll talk to you about the potential cause of your hearing loss, which will help them recommend treatment options, which could include prescription or over-the-counter hearing aids. If you aren't a good candidate for hearing aids, your doctor may recommend another type of treatment, like surgery or medication.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.