What is High Frequency Hearing Loss?
High frequency hearing loss, also known as high frequency sensorineural hearing loss, is a type of hearing loss where you have difficulty hearing high pitched sounds. It affects your ability to hear frequencies between 2000-8000 Hz.
The parts of speech affected tend to be the consonant sounds like S, H, F, T, K and CH. Vowels are lower frequency sounds and tend to not be affected as much.
Common symptoms of high frequency hearing loss include:
- Difficulty hearing women’s and children’s voices
- Problems understanding speech, especially in noisy environments
- Frequently needing to ask people to repeat themselves
- Difficulty hearing high pitched sounds like birds chirping or music notes
- Words sounding mumbled or slurred to you
- Needing to turn up the volume on the TV or radio
The onset of high frequency hearing loss is usually gradual and you may not notice it at first. It typically starts in both ears at the same time. The higher pitches are impacted first but over time, hearing loss progresses to lower frequencies as well.
What Causes High Frequency Hearing Loss?
High frequency hearing loss can be caused by a few key factors:
- Natural ageing process. As we age, the tiny hair cells in our inner ear start to deteriorate and become damaged. High frequency sounds rely on the smaller, more fragile hair cells towards the base of the cochlea. These are typically the first to be affected by ageing, leading to a gradual decline in the ability to hear higher pitched sounds over time. This age-related hearing loss typically starts from around age 60.
- Noise exposure. Loud noise exposure, either sudden burst loud noises or prolonged exposure to noise over 85 decibels, can damage and destroy the hair cells in your ear. Noises like concerts, machinery, power tools, motorbikes, and even loud music through headphones can contribute to noise-induced high frequency hearing loss over time. The higher frequencies are most vulnerable to loud noise.
- Medical conditions. Certain medical conditions that affect circulation or nerve signals to the ear can also lead to high frequency hearing loss. These include conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, tumours on the hearing nerve, and diabetes. The tiny blood vessels and nerve connections to the hair cells that detect high pitched sounds are especially delicate and prone to damage from medical conditions. Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder caused by fluid buildup, can also initially lead to low-frequency hearing loss.
How is High Frequency Hearing Loss Diagnosed?
- Pure tone audiometry. This is the most common hearing test. You wear headphones and listen to a series of pure tone beeps at different frequencies and volumes. You raise your hand or press a button when you hear the beep. This allows the audiologist to plot your hearing sensitivity across different frequencies.
- Speech audiometry. You wear headphones and listen to words spoken at different volumes. This tests your ability to hear and understand speech.
- Tympanometry. This test measures how your eardrum responds to a change in air pressure. It helps determine if there’s a problem in your middle ear.
- Acoustic reflex test. This measures how your ear reacts to loud sounds by activating the stapedius muscle. Abnormalities can indicate hearing problems.
- Otoacoustic emissions test. Soft sounds are played in the ear and a tiny microphone tests the echo produced by outer hair cells. This helps test the function of the inner ear.
The audiologist will examine your test results across the different frequencies to diagnose high frequency hearing loss. The tests allow them to pinpoint the specific frequencies affected and the degree of hearing loss. This helps determine treatment options.
What are the Treatment Options?
There are two main treatment options for high frequency hearing loss:
Hearing aids are small electronic devices consisting of a microphone, amplifier, and speaker. They are designed to make sounds louder and help people with hearing loss understand speech and environmental noises better.
Hearing aids for high frequency hearing loss are programmed to amplify high frequency sounds specifically. This allows people to hear critical speech sounds that they may otherwise miss due to their high frequency hearing loss. Digital hearing aids can be customised through programming to meet an individual’s specific hearing needs.
Many modern hearing aids are quite small, discreet, and comfortable to wear. Hearing aids for high frequency hearing loss may be worn in or behind the ear. Some are even nearly invisible when worn inside the ear canal. Hearing aids should be fitted by an audiologist for the best results.
Assistive Listening Devices
Assistive listening devices can also help people with high frequency hearing loss by directly transmitting sounds over a distance. There are various types of assistive listening devices available:
- Personal amplifiers. These are portable devices that amplify sounds closest to the listener. They reduce background noise and make important sounds more intelligible.
- FM and IR systems. These systems use radio signals (FM) or infrared light signals (IR) to transmit sounds from a microphone used by the speaker to receivers worn by the listener. The transmitted signals are clearer than surrounding noises. This helps improve comprehension, especially in noisy environments.
- Induction loop systems. Also known as hearing loops, these systems transmit sounds electromagnetically directly to hearing aids equipped with telecoils. The telecoil picks up the signal from the induction loop and converts it into sound.
- Smartphone apps. There are various apps that can amplify sounds and reduce noise for improved listening on smartphones and tablets. Some can also stream audio from TVs and public address systems.
Assistive listening devices help minimise the impacts of high frequency hearing loss and make it easier to communicate. An audiologist can recommend appropriate assistive devices based on an individual’s degree of hearing loss and lifestyle needs.
How to Prevent Further Hearing Loss
Protecting your hearing from loud noise is crucial to prevent further high frequency hearing loss. This includes wearing earplugs or earmuffs when exposed to loud sounds like power tools and concerts. It’s recommended to use hearing protection when noise levels reach 85 decibels or higher.
Getting your hearing tested regularly by an audiologist is also important. They can monitor any changes in your hearing over time and recommend treatment options before the loss worsens. Annual hearing evaluations are suggested once you reach age 50. For those with high frequency hearing loss, more frequent tests may be needed to keep track of any progression.
Detecting and addressing hearing loss early on gives you the best chance at slowing its advancement. Be proactive about safe listening and getting your hearing checked. Together, these measures can help preserve your hearing health as you age.
There are some useful strategies that can help you cope with high frequency hearing loss in day-to-day situations:
- Sit close to speakers. Sitting close to someone who is talking to you allows you to catch more of their speech, especially the higher frequency consonant sounds that can be hard to hear. Position yourself within 3 to 6 feet if possible. Face the speaker directly and avoid situations where speakers are behind you or far away.
- Avoid noisy environments. Background noise makes hearing conversations even more challenging. Try to move to a quieter spot for conversations whenever possible. Turn down or avoid sources of ambient noise like televisions and radios when conversing. Let friends and family know that a quiet setting will be easier for you to communicate in.
- Speechreading. Speechreading involves watching a speaker’s mouth and facial expressions closely to help figure out what they are saying. This becomes increasingly important with high frequency hearing loss. Don’t be afraid to let conversation partners know that speechreading aids your comprehension. Position yourself facing speakers in well-lit areas for easier speechreading.
Effects on Communication
High frequency hearing loss can significantly impact communication in various ways. One of the most common issues is difficulty hearing women’s and children’s voices. Their voices tend to be higher pitched and contain more high frequency sounds that someone with high frequency loss may not hear well. This could make it challenging to engage in conversation with female friends or family members, hear your child’s voice, or understand a woman speaking on the television or radio.
Another key communication struggle is trouble understanding speech in noisy environments. Background noise contains a lot of high frequency sounds. When these sounds are inaudible due to high frequency hearing loss, it can be extremely difficult to comprehend speech from other talkers surrounded by noise. Some noisy settings like restaurants, parties, crowds, or traffic could become very frustrating and fatiguing to communicate in. The cognitive load of straining to fill in the inaudible parts of speech alongside distracting noise can be immense.
Increased Risk of Isolation
High frequency hearing loss can lead to increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. As high frequency sounds become harder to hear, following along in group conversations or noisy environments becomes very challenging. This can lead to avoiding social situations altogether to avoid the frustration and exhaustion of constantly struggling to hear.
Withdrawing from social situations unfortunately only exacerbates feelings of loneliness and isolation. The lack of social interaction and support can also contribute to developing depression and/or anxiety. It becomes a problematic cycle where isolation leads to worsen mental health, and worsening mental health leads to further isolation.
Breaking this cycle requires being proactive about finding new ways to stay socially engaged despite the challenges of hearing loss. This could include:
- Letting close friends and family know what they can do to make conversations easier, like speaking slower, facing you, minimising background noise, etc.
- Exploring assistive listening devices like personal amplifiers for group settings
- Joining support groups (in-person or online) for people with hearing loss
- Prioritising one-on-one interactions which are easier to manage
- Considering a cochlear implant if the hearing loss is severe
- Working with a therapist to develop healthy coping strategies for social anxiety or depression
The increased isolation and loneliness of high frequency hearing loss is unfortunate but manageable with the right support and self-advocacy. Reaching out early for help is key to maintaining social ties and positive mental health.
The future looks promising when it comes to potential new treatments for high frequency hearing loss. Researchers are exploring two exciting areas that may lead to better options down the road:
Scientists are testing various new drug therapies that aim to protect the delicate hair cells in the inner ear from damage. Some medications in development work by increasing blood flow or reducing inflammation. Others try to prevent the death of hair cells. Research so far shows some benefits, but more studies are needed before any new oral drugs become available.
Gene therapy is also being researched as a way to potentially restore hearing. The idea is to insert genes into the cells of the inner ear to trigger the regrowth of hair cells. This approach would be most relevant for sensorineural hearing loss caused by damaged hair cells. Studies in animals have shown some positive results. Human clinical trials are now underway to see if gene therapy could work for people with certain genetic mutations linked to hearing loss.
While still highly experimental, advances in biotechnology and genetics offer hope that innovative new treatments may emerge in the coming years. However, more testing is required to ensure these cutting-edge therapies are both safe and effective.
When to see an Audiologist
If you suspect you may be experiencing high frequency hearing loss, it is important to schedule a hearing test with an audiologist.
There are several signs that your hearing may be getting progressively worse, indicating it is time to have your hearing evaluated:
- You have increasing difficulty hearing and understanding conversations, especially with women’s and children’s voices
- You struggle to follow dialogue on TV or radio programs
- You have trouble hearing in noisy environments
- You need to turn up the volume louder than other people
- You have ringing or buzzing sounds in your ears (tinnitus)
- Friends and family comment that you don’t seem to hear as well
Consulting an audiologist is the best way to determine the degree of your hearing loss, the frequencies affected, and the options available to help correct it. The audiologist will start with a thorough case history and then conduct a hearing test in a soundproof booth using specialised equipment.
Based on the results, the audiologist can discuss whether hearing aids may help amplify sounds in the high frequency range you are missing. Other assistive listening devices and communication strategies may also be recommended.
It is best to have your hearing tested when symptoms first arise, rather than wait until communication problems become severe. Early identification and support can minimise the impacts of high frequency hearing loss and help preserve remaining hearing.