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Concerns Over Online and Over-the-Counter Hearing Devices

This article is based on a recent interview with Ronald L. Webster, Ph.D., president of The Hearing Center at Hollins Communications Research Institute. The interview was conducted and the article written by Dawn Jorgenson, a content editor for WSLS-TV.  In this article, Dr. Webster discusses risks associated with purchasing an online or over-the-counter hearing device. He contrasts these quick-buy hearing devices to the benefits of seeing a hearing professional for accurate testing, appropriate hearing aid selection, precision fittings, and follow-up service.

As we or our loved ones age, hearing loss is something many of us will deal with.

In fact, one in six people over the age of 18 report having some trouble hearing - that’s about 37.5 million U.S. adults, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Ronald L. Webster, Ph.D., president of The Hearing Center at Hollins Communications Research InstituteRonald L. Webster, Ph.D. is president of The Hearing Center at Hollins Communications Research Institute.

Ronald L. Webster, Ph.D, who is president of The Hearing Center at Hollins Communications Research Institute, said there are many different causes for hearing loss, including genetic factors, but the most common source of hearing loss is too much exposure to loud sounds.

“As we’ve looked at our case loads over time, we’re finding more people at younger ages with hearing loss,” said Dr. Webster, adding that it could be attributed to things like headphones and loud music.

Recognizing a Problem

Hearing loss can be gradual, which means others might notice a problem before you do. If you’re constantly having someone ask you to turn down the TV, or if you have trouble following conversations, these could be signs you might have hearing loss.

But how do you know if it’s time to see a hearing professional?

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has a 10-question quiz that can help you determine if it might be time to schedule a professional hearing evaluation.

The questions are:

  1. Do you feel frustrated when talking to members of your family because you have difficulty hearing them?
  2. Do you sometimes feel embarrassed when you meet new people because you struggle to hear?
  3. Do you have trouble hearing the TV or radio at levels that are loud enough for others?
  4. Do you have difficulty hearing when visiting friends, relatives, or neighbors?
  5. Do you have trouble hearing family or friends when you are together in a restaurant?
  6. Do you feel that any difficulty with your hearing limits your personal or social life?
  7. Does a hearing problem cause you to attend religious services less often than you would like?
  8. Do you have difficulty hearing when someone speaks in a whisper?
  9. Does a hearing problem cause you to argue with family members?
  10. Do you feel restricted or limited by a hearing problem?

Did you answer “yes” to three or more questions? If so, this could indicate a hearing problem, meaning it’s time to consider seeing a professional.

A Few Issues

Before you think you should rush out to get an online or off-the-shelf device that promises to help you hear better, there are some important things to know.

First, always see a hearing professional who will conduct a detailed hearing test on you. He or she can recommend the best device for your needs, as well as ensure proper fit and tuning for optimal hearing clarity.

There are issues that can arise when people jump straight to purchasing a quick-buy hearing device when they begin to feel like they’re experiencing hearing loss.

For example, one issue is that a patient may just have a buildup of wax that’s causing him or her to have trouble hearing. If you bypass having a professional look at your ears and go straight to get an online or over-the-counter hearing device, the care of your ears is being ignored, Webster said.

Another issue that can cause someone to have hearing loss is a punctured ear drum. A puncture can happen by infection, pressure or by putting objects in the ear -- even cotton-tipped swabs.

Understanding Hearing

After a comprehensive hearing assessment, a hearing professional can identify the best type of hearing aid for your needs. He or she also can ensure your device fits well and is tuned to optimize your hearing.

Dr. Webster couldn’t stress enough the importance of caring for our ears and hearing, especially when the patient has true hearing loss.

“I think people are oversimplifying hearing and hearing loss. It’s quite a complex issue,” Dr. Webster said. “People can buy amplifiers that can help them, but if they turn them up too loud for too long, they can run the risk of injuring their hearing more. You may hear well, but you may crank up the sound so high that you begin to damage your hearing further.”

He compared it to having our vision checked, noting that the evaluation of our ears and hearing is even more nuanced than an eye exam.

“When you have your eyes checked, there are a small number of measurements that are made for fitting of glasses or contact lenses. That’s pretty straightforward. But hearing is substantially more complex,” Dr. Webster said. “When we do a thorough hearing assessment in our clinic, we’ll be making about 24 to 25 measurements of hearing, using different tools and avenues.”

He went on to explain that hearing does not operate on a straight line or linear scale, but rather, is more nonlinear.

“You must be very, very careful in how measurements are made, because if you do not understand nonlinear math, you may not be helping the right way,” Dr. Webster said. “The hearing system covers such a wide range of power. We can hear at a threshold in very quiet rooms, as well as rooms with a lot of sound. You can hear from very slight sounds to sounds thousands of times above the minimum we can hear.”

He stressed that, because of this, it’s so important to be mindful in taking proper care of your ears and hearing, and to let a professional guide you in your specific needs.

“The technology required to provide effective hearing assessments and fittings is quite sophisticated,” Dr. Webster said. “The detailed measurements taken by a hearing professional during the hearing evaluation can really work to improve hearing across the entire spectrum of sound.”

He said many of the items people can buy online right now are $15 hearing aids that were purchased in China and are being sold in the U.S. for $100 or more.

Some of the instruments that are coming through online sources, Webster added, have no precision capacity for matching the instrument to the details of the patient’s hearing loss. That’s in addition to perhaps having to undergo an online hearing test -- as opposed to one done by a professional, in person, which is much more reliable. In addition, the device might not perform as well, and could potentially pose a risk of further damage to the patient’s ears, among other problems.

The Long-Term

The initial hearing test and evaluation is just the beginning of a patient’s care when it comes to hearing.

One of the most important things The Hearing Center provides for clients is follow-up service. The nonprofit center also offers complimentary hearing assessments for the Roanoke area community.

“Hearing can change over time, so we track that for our clients and make adjustments to their hearing instruments,” Dr. Webster said. “In addition, we have a very good retention rate when people acquire hearing aids from us.

“We do research on hearing and new ways of trying to assess hearing and hearing loss. We continually try to understand hearing in its most fundamental way. With that approach, we do a better job of helping people who have hearing loss.”


The Hearing Center is a nonprofit hearing clinic located at 7851 Enon Drive in Roanoke, Va. The clinic provides complimentary hearing evaluations, expert counsel, hearing aid sales, and precision fittings to help individuals enhance the quality of their lives through better hearing.

Our Location: 7851 Enon Drive, Suite B, Roanoke, VA 24019