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Decoding a new language: audiology terms explained

audiology terms
October is Audiology Awareness Month, which means we’re delving into the murky world of “audiology speak” – that alien language of audiology terms spoken by audiologists and Ear Nose Throat (ENT)  specialists.

Audiology Terms You Should Know

Coming to grips with any new language or sphere of learning is hard. It’s especially difficult to understand what audiologists and consultants are telling us when we’re struggling to hear, possibly feeling upset, and coming across words and phrases for the first time. All the audiology terms can feel overwhelming.

We’ve pulled together a list of the most common words and phrases you’re likely to encounter when meeting with your ENT consultant, audiologist, or other hearing care professional.

The information has been broken into bite-sized pieces so you can look up the section most relevant to you. The categories are:

  • Parts of the ear
  • Words related to your hearing test
  • Phrases you might hear as part of a diagnosis
  • Words relating to hearing
  • Words related to hearing aids
  • Phonak terminology

Parts of the Ear

Ear canal – Hole in the temporal bone that funnels the sound to the eardrum.

Eardrum – Thin layer of skin that converts sound waves into vibrations.

Cochlea – The part of the inner ear that contains hair cells and nerve endings. They convert sound from a vibration in the middle ear to an electrical charge, which then goes to the brain for processing.

Incus – Middle bone in the chain, often called the anvil.

Ossicular Chain – Three tiny bones in the middle ear that form a link between the eardrum and cochlea. They transfer sound through the middle ear via vibrations.

Malleus – Hammer-shaped bone attached to the eardrum.

Pinna – External part of the ear.

Stapes – Smallest bone in the body sometimes referred to as the stirrup.

Words Related to Your Hearing Test

Air-conduction test – When sounds are played through headphones during a hearing test and you press a button to indicate you’ve heard the sound.

Audiogram – Chart/graph that shows the results of a hearing test.

Bone-conduction test – When the sounds in a hearing test are played via a vibrator placed behind the ear or on the forehead. This is done to test the cochlea.

Decibel (dB) – Unit of measurement for expressing the relative loudness of sounds.

Dynamic range – Range of volume between the threshold and the level at which a sound becomes uncomfortably loud.

Masking noise – Continuous swooshing noise used during an air-conduction test to cover-up/mask responses from the ear that’s not being tested.

Speech banana – Term used to describe the area on the audiogram that covers conversational speech.

Threshold – Quietest level at which an individual can hear a sound. This is what is plotted on the audiogram.

Read more: What an audiogram says about your hearing loss

Phrases You Might Hear as Part of a Diagnosis

Bilateral hearing loss – Affecting both sides/ears. When an audiologist says, “You have bilateral hearing loss,” they mean you need two hearing aids.

Conductive hearing loss – Reduction in the ability to hear due to an issue in the outer ear or middle ear, stopping sound from reaching the cochlea.

Congenital hearing loss – Hearing loss present at or before birth.

Degenerative hearing loss – Hearing loss that will worsen over time. Also called a progressive hearing loss.

Degrees of hearing loss – These are based on the thresholds (the quietest level at which an individual can hear a sound) graphed onto an audiogram:

  • Mild = 25 to 40 dB
  • Moderate = 41 to 55 dB
  • Moderate to severe = 56 to 70 dB
  • Severe = 71 to 90 dB
  • Profound = greater than 90 dB

Hereditary hearing loss – Hearing loss or a propensity for hearing loss that is transferred via genes from parent to offspring.

Sensorineural hearing loss – Reduction in the ability to hear due to a problem in the inner ear. This can be “sensori” if it relates to sound not being picked up by the hair cells in the cochlea. If it relates to sound not being transmitted by the hearing nerves, it can be called “neural.”

Unilateral hearing loss – Affecting only one side/ear.

Read more: Hearing Loss Terms you Need to Know 

Words Relating to Hearing

Acuity – Clarity of sound.

Acusis – Ability to perceive sound normally.

Anacusis – Absence of sound: deafness.

“Anacusis – Absence of sound: deafness”

Binaural – When sound is played in both ears.

Diplacusis – Perceiving a single tone as multiple tones or multiple harmonics.

Frequency – Number of vibrations per second that create a sound. They result in the pitch of a sound.

Hyperacusis – Type of reduced tolerance to sound. Ordinary noises may sound too loud. Loud noises may cause discomfort or pain.

Localization – Ability to determine the direction sound is coming from.

Pitch – Degree of highness or lowness of a tone. E.g., high-pitched scream, or a ‘ow-pitched rumble.

Words Related to Hearing Aids

Compression – Hearing aid feature that controls the volume of loud sounds to protect the hearing of the user. An example is limiting the volume of the sound of an airplane flying overhead or a firework exploding nearby.

Feedback – High pitched whistling sound made by a hearing aid when it’s not fitted into the ear correctly.

Feedback suppression – Technology available in some hearing aids designed to limit the amount of feedback.

Gain – Amount of volume added by a hearing aid or the boost it gives a sound.

Intensity – Loudness/volume.

Occlusion – Unpleasant sensation that results from “plugging up” the ear canal.

Recruitment – When someone with sensorineural hearing loss experiences “uncomfortable loudness levels,” perceiving a loud sound as “extra loud” compared to the same sound being heard by a hearing person. This is similar to hyperacusis, but specifically related to an experience while using a hearing aid.

Reverberation – When loud sounds bounce around the inside of a room.

Sibilance – Hissing sound, such as s, z, sh, and zh. When these are over-exaggerated, the hearing aid needs adjusting.

Signal-to-noise ratio – Refers to the ability to hear speech over background noise. Many hearing aids have a Speech in Noise  program, which amplifies speech and dampens down background noise.

Phonak Terminology

NoiseBlock – Helps with recognition and suppression of interfering signals.

SoundFlow – Patented multi-program automatic system that automatically adapts to the wearer’s sound environment.

SoundRecover technology (Phonak hearing aids) For individuals with high frequency hearing loss, high frequency sounds such as consonants, b, p, and d, and sibilant sounds such as s and sh are compressed and shifted into a lower frequency that is more easily heard.

WhistleBlock – Precisely identifies and eliminates feedback or whistling.

ZoomControl – Allows the wearer to decide from which direction they wish to listen to speech and sounds.

Read more: Phonak introduces the Active Vent receiver

We hope that these audiology terms and definitions help you to have a better understanding of what’s being said in your hearing care appointments.

If you don’t understand something, feel free to ask your audiologist for an explanation or for the terms to be written down so you can look them up when you get home. It’s your hearing they’re talking about. It’s important you understand the audiology terms being said!

Author Details
Phonak hEARo, Angie is a freelance journalist and content writer. Angie was diagnosed with Otosclerosis in her right ear at the age of 30. In 2011, she suffered sudden profound hearing loss in her left ear. She uses a Phonak CROS II with a Phonak Audéo V hearing aid. You can follow Angie on Twitter @hearinglosshour and join in #HearingLossHour on the first Tuesday of the month.