Hearing Aid Basics

If you think you need a hearing aid, the best place to start is with a visit to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist and/or an audiologist. The ENT will examine you to make sure there's no underlying problem causing your hearing loss, such as an infection or buildup of earwax. Then the audiologist will assess your hearing in a soundproof booth to see how well you can pick up sounds at different frequencies. The audiologist will also fit you for your hearing aids by making an impression of your ears. After the hearing aids have been made, you'll return to the audiologist for a fitting and to have the hearing aid programmed. You'll learn how to clean your hearing aids, adjust the volume and change the batteries.

Hearing-aid costs can vary significantly. Big analog hearing aids can cost a few hundred dollars, whereas small digital hearing aids can run into the thousands of dollars. Plan to spend anywhere from $500 to $6,000, depending on the options you choose. Because they involve surgery, cochlear implants are much more expensive -- about $40,000.

Although Medicare and many private insurance plans won't cover the cost of hearing aids, Medicaid does cover it, and Veterans Affairs will pay for qualified veterans. Some private insurance companies will cover the hearing tests used in the initial evaluation. Low-income patients can get help paying for their hearing aids through Audient Alliance.

Although price is important, it isn't the only issue to consider. Reliability and appropriateness are crucial when your hearing is at stake. Also remember that some prices include an evaluation and checkups.

If they are well cared for, hearing aids should last for five to seven years. Most of the problems that send hearing aids in for repairs are caused by dirt, earwax and oil from the skin that blocks the microphones and receivers.

The first hearing aids were enormous, horn-shaped trumpets with a large, open piece at one end that collected sound. The trumpet gradually tapered into a thin tube that funneled the sound into the ear.

The development of the modern hearing aid might not have been possible had it not been for the contributions of two of the greatest inventors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alexander Graham Bell electronically amplified sound in his telephone using a carbon microphone and battery -- a concept that was adopted by hearing aid manufacturers. In 1886, Thomas Edison invented the carbon transmitter, which changed sounds into electrical signals that could travel through wires and be converted back into sounds. This technology was used in the first hearing aids.

The Industrial Revolution allowed for the mass production of hearing aids and created a new middle class that could afford the technology. In the 1800s, several companies, including George P. Pilling and Sons of Philadelphia, and Kirchner and Wilhelm of Stuttgart, Germany, produced their own versions of hearing aids. In 1898, the Dictograph Company introduced the first commercial carbon-type hearing aid. A year later, Miller Reese Hutchison, of the Akouphone company in Alabama, patented the first practical electrical hearing aid, which used a carbon transmitter and battery. It was so large that it had to sit on a table, and it sold for $400.

In the 1920s, vacuum tubes were introduced to hearing aids, which made sound amplification more efficient, but enormous batteries still made them cumbersome.

1952 ushered in the age of the transistor hearing aids. The addition of these simple on/off switches finally enabled the advent of a smaller hearing aid. Early transistor hearing aids were designed to fit within the frames of eyeglasses. Later, they were adapted to fit behind the ear. The first transistor hearing aid to hit the market in late 1952 was sold by Sonotone for $229.50.

In the 1990s, hearing aids went digital. Sound quality improved and became more adjustable. Also during this time, programmable hearing aids were introduced.

At the turn of the 21st century, computer technology made hearing aids smaller and even more precise, with settings to accommodate virtually every type of listening environment. The newest generation of hearing aids can continually adjust themselves to improve sound quality and reduce background noise.

Chris Adams


Board certified hearing aid specialist since 2007, graduate of Emory University. Member of Georgia Society of Hearing Professionals, Rabun County Chamber of Commerce, and the Clayton Merchants Association.

Nancy Adams



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