Your ears are a valuable part of your body, as they are responsible for one of your five primary senses: hearing. However, the ear’s lesser-known role involves maintaining balance and spatial awareness. Conditions such as tinnitus might require a visit to a sound relief audiologist to figure out exactly what’s going on. But it’s important to understand the anatomy of your body and what kind of doctor you should see to understand your hearing better.
Within the inner ear is a network of canals known as the vestibular labyrinth, and residing within are small hair-like sensors and fluid content which work in conjunction to help you identify which way you are facing at a given time and adjust to gravity and balance while moving, including varying locomotive circumstances such as riding skateboards, traveling in moving vehicles, or upward momentum such as when using an elevator.If you experience symptoms such as lightheadedness, vertigo, blurred vision, or even a feeling like you are floating, you may wish to see a physician specializing in ear disorders. The same is true if you suffer from auditory ailments such as hearing loss, tinnitus, or other auditory disorders.
An audiologist is one of two major medical professions to consider when having ear-related problems.
The Difference Between an Audiologist and Otolaryngologist
You may have never heard of either of these occupations before, or at least not by these names. Two roots make up the word “audiologist” and help to understand what it means: “audio” and “ology.” Audio is a word meaning sound, which you can likely guess based on how we use the word today, and “ology” refers to a scientific study. The “ist” suffix added to the word means a person who performs scientific studies, in this case, on sound.
The title “Otolaryngologist” seems exceptionally long and confusing, but it is actually an abbreviated form of “otorhinolaryngology”! A word with so many parts can be confusing, but not if you understand that each section is based on Greek roots that describe the three major fields in which this type of doctor specializes. “Otos” means ear, “rhino” means nose (think of the rhinoceros, known for its very long nose and horns), and “laryngo” refers to the windpipe (the top part is known as the “larynx”). In short, this medical professional is an ear, nose, and throat doctor, so many people call them an “ENT” instead of an “Otolaryngologist.”
When deciding which physician is best for your symptoms, consider that ENTs generally deal with diseases, tumors, abnormal features, or injuries that are physical in nature, those which respond well to surgery or other treatment options. As their moniker indicates, their expertise extends beyond the ear to the nose and throat.
An audiologist, on the other hand, typically works at the other end of the spectrum, assisting with ailments such as natural or stimulated hearing loss, phantom sounds in the brain resulting from hearing damage or other underlying causes, and balance issues resulting from complications within the inner ear.
Much of their work involves using technology to improve these situations, coping with untreatable medical conditions, or rehabilitation. However, their efforts can sometimes resolve ear-related medical issues or identify the actual cause of symptoms, which they can then treat themselves or upon reference to an appropriate professional if necessary.
How do Audiologists Treat Hearing Loss?
Depending on the condition, audiologists may take several steps to find a solution for issues that affect your hearing. One of the most common services they perform is alleviating hearing loss. They will investigate potential causes of the impact on your hearing and devise a suitable treatment plan.
For example, sometimes impacted earwax is the culprit, serving as a sound barrier. In this case, the audiologist will likely perform a safe earwax cleanse to clean out the canals.
Other times, a hearing loss problem may be an age-related issue or can result from damage to the fine sensory hairs within the inner ear that transmit sound to the brain. If necessary, Audiologists are adept at finding the best hearing aid solution for you and finding the perfect fit.
A condition that can arise from hearing loss or damage is tinnitus, which occurs most often when broken or bent cochlear hairs transmit false information to the brain, which it interprets as phantom sounds. People often describe tinnitus as a ringing in the ears. Still, the sounds vary from person to person and include noises such as whistling, roaring, hissing, crackling, popping, and electronic whines.
While many people may experience temporary tinnitus when exposed to sudden or prolonged loud noises, such as when leaving a concert, the condition can become permanent, and, unfortunately, there are currently no verified cures. Audiologists attempt to find a treatable underlying cause, such as high blood pressure or increased stress. If that is not possible, they offer alternatives and support to help tinnitus sufferers cope with the condition.
This may include a referral to a therapist or a list of tips and tricks to reduce tinnitus to background noise, such as listening to white noise or using a hearing aid to bring environmental sound to the forefront, which makes tinnitus blend into the background. This is especially helpful when in quiet environments, such as when trying to sleep at night.
What About Balance Disorders?
Before they devise a treatment plan, audiologists perform a battery of tests to ensure that the loss of balance is, in fact, the result of complications within the inner ear and not a sign of a more severe condition. If that is the case, they may refer you to a specialist in a field that can address that cause; if not, they will decide which strategies will serve you best as part of vestibular rehabilitation.
Standard treatment options include head-positioning exercises designed to return the fluids in the vestibular canals to optimum placement. For example, vertigo is usually the result of tiny crystal “canaliths” in the ear becoming loose and finding their way into the vestibular canals. As you move your head, those crystals shift and push fluid around, resulting in a woozy spinning sensation. A technique known as the Epley maneuver helps position the head so that, with the help of gravity, those crystals can depart the inner ear.
The Bottom Line
If you suffer from loss of balance, hearing loss, tinnitus, or other ailments that are not the direct result of a physical cause, an audiologist can help you. They perform informed evaluations to help determine the cause and prescribe a treatment plan to improve your quality of life. Even if they cannot resolve the ailment completely, they can offer research-based techniques and refer you to other specialists to help you cope with these ear-related challenges.