By Alexander Germanis
No matter where one goes or lives in this world, the ability to communicate and connect with one another is paramount. We may think of connection or communication in terms of cell phones, the Internet, computers, and smart devices, but the basis of communication is and has always been our ability to physically hear one another.
When the foundation of hearing is ignored, however, the structure of our worlds can crumble, avenues of communication close, and we can be left utterly alone. This is why audiologists like Mona Dworsack, AuD, of Peoria Ear, Nose, and Throat (Peoria ENT) urge everyone to protect the basic foundation of communication and keep those avenues from ever closing.
Same the World Over
Keeping the avenues open was what lured Dr. Dworsack to audiology in the first place. “Audiology was attractive to me as a helping profession that affected people’s ability to communicate with and connect with others,” she shares. “There are a variety of technical aspects and opportunities and I felt I had the ability to make an immediate impact in someone’s life.”
Making that impact has taken her from California to Florida, from Denmark to the Department of Corrections in Illinois. But as of 2019, she has resettled in her hometown of Peoria, returning her expertise and passion to the people of Central Illinois.
A mother of two, Dr. Dworsack understands the importance of screening and protecting hearing from birth. “Early in my career, I got to be part of establishing newborn hearing screening programs and diagnostic follow-up protocols throughout the country. I can say with confidence that a majority of states have well-defined protocols to ensure children with hearing loss are appropriately identified, enrolled in treatment, and connected to services,” she informs. “Illinois mandates screening at birth, and at specific intervals in preschool and elementary school.”
Screenings should not cease in adulthood, of course. Although there is no set standard for how often adults should be screened, there are guidelines for referral in case of noise exposure, chronic health conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, or exposure to ototoxic medications such as those prescribed for the treatment of cancer, infections, or pain.
Technology of Hearing
Technology is a sword with two edges. With every step or leap forward in technology, our lives are often made easier, or tasks of daily living take less time to accomplish. Riding tandem on these leaps forward, however, come dangers we may have never foreseen.
After the ability to record and playback music, eventually came the ability to listen to it on headphones. With time, those headphones got more powerful, and the sizes shrank, allowing us to place the speakers directly into the ear canal. Decades later, Bluetooth allowed us to listen to music wirelessly, making use more prevalent.
Unfortunately, this has also led to hearing problems. “As our world has gotten louder, we have seen incidences of hearing loss and tinnitus, even in younger people and children,” Dr. Dworsack says. “Over time, being around too much loud noise can cause a person to lose their hearing—and once it’s gone, they can’t get it back. According to the CDC, more than one in eight children (ages 6 to 19) have noise-induced hearing loss.”
Again, technology can come to the rescue, as it were. Since the advent of electronic hearing aids in the late 1890s, myriad improvements have been made. “Hearing aids have gotten smaller, and the computer chips inside allow for sophisticated management of background noise and improve speech understanding like never before,” says the doctor. “As for treating tinnitus,
we now have the ability to offer a variety of soothing sound signals via streaming and/or onboard sound generators. This has made a meaningful impact on our ability to tailor effective treatment plans.”
The ability to screen one’s hearing has also improved. “Hearing screening tools are more available today—as online- or cellphone-based hearing screeners—or in the form of a questionnaire,” Dr. Dworsack points out. “Consumers of hearing care can find screeners as a helpful first step if they aren’t sure if they have a hearing problem. Ultimately, a full diagnostic hearing evaluation can provide a complete picture of your hearing health.”
“We have a team of five audiologists and one hearing instrument specialist at Peoria ENT,” she continues. “Our hearing care professionals will evaluate your hearing, assess the characteristics of your tinnitus, and its impact on your daily life. This helps us build a customized treatment plan, which may include hearing aids and sound therapy for the treatment of your hearing loss and tinnitus. We can also connect you with local providers of cognitive behavioral therapy who work with patients who have tinnitus.”
Heal, Hope, Hear
Of the nearly 350 million people in the United States, 48 million have trouble hearing with one or both of their ears. “Yet, the average adult waits 8.9 years before taking action to address their hearing,” Dr. Dworsack laments.
While Better Speech and Hearing Month this year centers around “Building a Strong Foundation,” for so many people, that foundation has already suffered. Tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears without any external cause, is a common sign of such a damaged foundation.
Fortunately, therapeutic intervention in a variety of methods is available. “Since there is no proven ‘cure’ for tinnitus, the goal of any therapy is to help patients manage their reaction to their tinnitus,” Dr. Dworsack states. “By gaining control of their emotional reaction, they can lessen the perceived intensity of, and distress caused by, their tinnitus.”
One method is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches patients how to redirect their thoughts away from their tinnitus, control their reactions to it, and manage feelings of anger or depression caused by it. “For example, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is tailored to teach patients to wholly accept, embrace, and control their experience with their tinnitus,” the doctor continues. “And programs like the University of Iowa’s tinnitus activities training provide strategies to improve hearing, sleep, concentration, and overall well-being.”
Sound therapy uses external sounds as auditory stimulation to remove the focus from tinnitus. Because of the strong link between hearing loss and tinnitus, simply using a hearing aid to treat hearing loss also provides some relief. “Others may need specific sound stimulation in the form of masking noise or nature sounds to provide relaxation and relief,” says the doctor. “When my own tinnitus is bothersome, I get the most relief when my ear level devices are programmed with nature sounds such as ocean waves or rain.”
There are some promising experimental therapies on the horizon as well. The FDA has recently approved bimodal stimulation. “This has the potential to improve the effectiveness of treatment for patients who are at least moderately affected by their tinnitus,” Dr. Dworsack says. “I look forward to learning more and am hopeful about its potential as a tool at Peoria ENT.”
“Early treatment of both hearing loss and tinnitus improves outcomes in both the short and long terms,” she adds. “It can reduce listening effort, make communication easier, lessen the negative impacts of tinnitus, and ultimately, improve quality of life. In the long term, improved well-being and preserved/ improved speech understanding support better social, emotional, and cognitive health.”
Keep the Roads Open
As anyone who travels or commutes can attest, closed roads can prove to be more than just a nuisance. A closed road can lead to lost time, lost opportunities, and even lost lives. Free travel can only exist, however, when streets are maintained, respected, and used properly.
The audiologists at Peoria Ear, Nose, and Throat can confirm the avenue of communication is no different. Only maintenance, respect, and awareness of its condition will result in open travel. Inaction or lack of care can have irreversible consequences. Dr. Dworsack implores: “I would encourage you to pursue a hearing evaluation and treatment with a licensed audiologist as soon as you notice communication difficulty and/or bothersome sounds in their ears.”
Taking these steps at the first signs of communication difficulty can help keep the avenues of communication clear and allow you to better maintain relationships with loved ones, make new friends, and connect with one another.
Peoria Ear, Nose, & Throat is located at 7301 North Knoxville Avenue, Peoria, Illinois. If you would like to schedule a screening, please call us at (309) 589-5900. Or, if you would like to learn more about what can be done to help you or a loved one with their hearing, visit us on the web at www.peoriaearnosethroat.com.