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New Generation of Sound for the Hearing Impaired

Millions of people in the US suffer from hearing loss, and there are some new alternatives to the traditional hearing aid, as the Early Show's Dr. Emily Senay reported for HealthWatch.

This "new generation" of hearing aids works by transmitting sound to the delicate bones of the inner ear, stimulating them in the same way that normal sound does. A conventional hearing aid, on the other hand, works by simply amplifying sound through the ear canal to the outside of the eardrum.

A new device made by Soundtec uses an external component that fits in the ear canal. It picks up sound and transmits it in the form of electromagnetic waves to a tiny magnet attached to one of the small bones in the inner ear. The magnet vibrates the bones in the same way that a normal ear works to produce sound.

Most patients reported much better quality of sound than a conventional hearing aid, especially in the higher ranges. Some reported that they were able to hear more sounds. It is expected to get FDA approval soon.

For many people, conventional hearing aids work pretty well. But some people complain about feedback, distortion, and other distracting effects.

The new device is implanted surgically by cutting a small flap in the eardrum. It takes about 30 minutes and, in most cases, can be done with a local anesthetic. The eardrum heals in 8 to 10 weeks, and the patient can start using the device then.

A similar device, made by Symphonix, used the same principle--to stimulate the bones of the inner ear magnetically. But the difference is that this device uses a small microphone that transmits sound to the magnet through a receiver implanted in the scalp behind the ear.

That means there's no need to put anything in the ear canal. But the surgery involves implanting the receiver in the bone behind the ear as well as the implantation of the magnet and requires a general anesthetic.

These devices are suitable for moderate to severe sensorineural hearing loss, where the nerves in the inner ear are affected. It's the most common type of hearing loss, typically caused by loud noise exposure or aging. You should talk to your doctor about the options available to you, but for those who don't like the way traditional hearing aids sound, these devices are an alternative.

The Symphonix device with the microphone and implanted receiver can run about $15,000 to $20,000 with all the surgical costs. The Soundtec device will be around $4,000 to $5,000. They are not normally covered by insurance.

By comparison, a typical high-end digital hearing aid goes for around $3,000 or $4,000.

The FDA says the Symphonix device has some risks. Some patients reported pain and fullness in the ear. The surgery is reversible, however, and there are studies underway to see if there are any long-term side effects. Most patients didn't have any trouble.
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