Difference Between a Hearing Aid and a Hearing Amplifier

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Hearing impairment is an all too common part of modern life, and can be caused by a multitude of reasons, such as genetics, noise-induced hearing loss (through misuse of earphones or exposure to dangerously loud sound for example), or as a degenerative symptom of the ageing process. As a result, there is a growing market for digital hearing aids and other devices – created by countless hearing aid brands – and designed as sound amplifiers to assist with those suffering from the condition. Many consider hearing aids and digital sound amplifiers to be one and the same thing and even Eric Mann (M.D, PhD) deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDS) admits that “hearing aids and personal sound amplification products (PSAPS) can both improve our ability to hear sound…and some of their technology and function is similar.” This might seem like confirmation of the devices being indistinguishable from one another. However, the FDA warns that hearing aids and digital sound amplifiers are not actually the same at all, and they want to make it clear that people should not mistake the two.

Both a digital hearing amplifier and a digital hearing aid are wearable devices that perceive sound directly from the environment and transmit it to the ear via amplification. Firstly, a key distinction to note is that the FDA only regulates the use of hearing aids, which are designed specifically to compensate for impaired hearing loss, whereas a hearing amplifier is meant to be used more recreationally in environments where those with impaired hearing might require them. A good example of this would be watching television late at night, where if there was no hearing device used, then a higher volume would be necessary, potentially disturbing family members or neighbours. Another would be in a public space such as a park or city centre where there is a multitude of noises coming from different directions. Therefore, the second key distinction is that personal hearing devices are designed to simply make the act of hearing easier, rather than actually presenting a form of rehabilitation against the hearing loss itself.

Self-prescribing digital sound amplifiers could also cause issues due to there being a lack of a medical examination and identification of potential underlining causes. Eric Mann continued to detail how only hearing aids are specifically intended to actually compensate for impaired hearing and that a digital sound amplifier should only be purchased once the consumer has met with a medical professional and ruled out hearing loss as a condition. “If you suspect hearing loss, get your hearing evaluated by a health care professional.” Not doing so (and compensating with a digital sound amplifier) he explains, can lead to further damage to your hearing and other complications, through delaying the diagnosis and treatment of a potentially recoverable condition. Often hearing loss can be the result of something as simple as a reaction to a prescribed medication, or wax lodged in the ear canal – both of which can be alleviated with relative ease. In addition, the overuse of digital personal hearing devices could lead to a reliance on the amplification, causing a decreased tolerance to ambient sound (known as hyperacusis) or further degeneration to hearing.

Of course, digital hearing aids are more costly than digital sound amplifiers, as they are designed specifically with the intent of compensating for hearing loss, and can be adjusted to suit the needs of the individual who wears them. This makes them the ideal purchase for someone who has a genuine medical condition involving hearing loss. In contrast, personal hearing amplifiers are considered to be far more affordable and readily available, but often compromise on the quality of the sound, the specific needs of the individual, and other key features (such as a lack of an audio induction loop, used to aid hearing in public spaces like bank cashier desks). As previously mentioned, they also aren’t regulated by the FDA, so the customer must trust the word of the company that produces them, rather than making an informed decision based on research. It is also important to note that sound amplifiers make all sounds louder, unlike a hearing aid which has the capability of analysing sounds and either decreasing them or increasing them based on the characteristics of the frequency – such as speech. Thus, a digital hearing aid is a much more comfortable experience for the wearer, making it more preferential to a personal sound amplifier, which adopts a more 'one size fits all’ approach.

In addition, digital hearing aids will be prescribed to a patient only after a series of extensive examinations have been performed by an audiologist, to uncover the specific cause and nature of the hearing loss. Each digital hearing aid will also be adjusted specifically to suit the individual needs of the patient, to ensure that hearing is optimised and that the distress associated with the condition is minimalized. It is worth noting that in some cases, (depending on the country) digital hearing aids might be covered by medical insurance, subsidised, or provided free of charge by the government.

Whilst it cannot be disputed that the rising cost of digital hearing aids has undoubtedly contributed to the increasing popularity of personal sound and hearing amplifiers, it is very important to understand these key differences. As the FDA states, there is a clear distinction between the way that digital hearing aids and personal hearing amplifiers operate. If you suspect for any reason that you might have suffered hearing loss, you should always seek help from a medical professional rather than try to deal with the problem yourself through self-prescribing. Once you have spoken with a doctor, they will be able to assist you by performing all the checks that are required to identify your potential issue, and then advise of hearing aids that will suit various budgets (should there be a cost). Also bear in mind that in nearly all cases, the cleaning and maintenance of a digital hearing aid are provided free of charge.

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