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Audiology terminology for patients and caregivers

Navigating hearing loss can be complex. Decode some of the more common phrases so you can be in the know.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Ruth Reisman

Updated:

May 13, 2024

An image of an elderly woman zoomed in on her ear. An image of an elderly woman zoomed in on her ear.

The 3 key takeaways

  • Learn terms about your ear’s anatomy — Understanding how the ear is constructed can help when it comes to discuss hearing loss with your doctor.
  • Understand the complexities of hearing health — A variety of tests, disorders, and processes exist within the realm of hearing health.
  • Hearing aids are complex, too — Learn about what kinds of hearing aids are available and their various features so you can make an informed decision about your treatment.

Dealing with hearing loss or related disorders can be confusing as either a patient or a caregiver. Even as adults, we may struggle to understand the complexities and concepts an audiologist discusses with us, especially if we don’t understand audiology terminology.

This can be particularly true for conditions, disorders, and treatment options for hearing loss.

audiologists.org has put together a glossary of audiology terminology to help you better understand audiologists, speech pathologists, and other hearing professionals when they are diagnosing or explaining hearing loss, auditory disorders, and treatment options.

Anatomy

Outer ear

This is the part of the ear that is visible with the naked eye or simple medical tools. It mostly consists of the ear lobe, ear canal, and ear drum. This is the part of the ear routinely checked during office visits.

Middle ear

The middle ear also includes the ear drum and three small bones, also known as the ossicles. These essential parts of the ear send movement inward to the inner ear.

Inner ear

The innermost part of the ear, this section is made up of the cochlea, canals that help with balance, and nerves that carry information to the brain.

Labyrinth

Part of the inner ear, the labyrinth is an organ that helps with balance. It consists of three small canals and the vestibule, which connects the labyrinth and cochlea.

Otoacoustic emissions

A normal response to sound, otoacoustic emissions occur when hair cells in the inner ear vibrate in response to sound. This in turn produces a very soft sound that echoes back. With mild or severe hearing loss, your ears will not produce any otoacoustic emissions, or OAEs.

Tympanic membrane

Also called the ear drum, this part of the ear separates the inner and outer ear. When sound reaches the eardrum, it causes the eardrum to vibrate and send those vibrations further into the ear.

Cochlea

This snail-shaped structure is located in the inner ear and houses the hearing organ.

Basal Region

Part of the cochlea, this structure detects higher frequency sounds, like nails on a chalkboard or whistles, and sends those signals to the brain.

Hearing health terminology

Conductive hearing loss

This occurs when sounds cannot move from the outer ear to the middle ear. Causes might include an ear infection, fluid in the middle ear, an issue with the eardrum, or simply a significant buildup of wax.

Sensorineural hearing loss

This type of hearing loss occurs when the inner ear becomes damaged or adversely impacted in some way. While this can be caused by loud noises or head trauma, a genetic predisposition or deformity within the ear can also cause hearing loss, along with illness or some drugs.

Mixed hearing loss

This occurs when there are elements of both sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. Essentially, the outer hear cannot send sound to the inner ear properly, and the inner ear cannot process the sound and send it to the brain.

Bilateral

This term is used to describe when either both ears or both sides of the head are involved in hearing loss.

Residual hearing

This is a term audiologists may use to describe how much usable hearing a patient has measured against the hearing that was lost.

Auditory brainstem response (ABR)

Also called an auditory evoked potential (AEP), this is a type of hearing test used to determine the health of your inner ear and the auditory nerve that carries information to the brain.

Hearing aid terminology

Cochlear Implant (CI)

Surgically implanted into the cochlea, cochlear implants turn sound waves into electrical impulses and then send them to the inner ear, bypassing the outer and middle ear altogether.

Behind–The–Ear Hearing Aid/BTE Hearing Aid

The earmold, a small bud that goes in the ear canal, is connected to the bulk of the hearing aid, which is located above or behind the ear.

On–The–Ear (OTE)/Open Ear Hearing Aid

This newer type of hearing aid has a more inconspicuous design with a thinner tubing and the electronics placed lower behind the ear.

In–The–Ear (ITE) Hearing Aid

A smaller hearing aid that sits within the pinna and ear canal. These hearing aids are still visible to the naked eye, but come in a variety of colors designed to make them blend in with skintone.

In–The–Canal (ITC) Hearing Aid

These hearing aids fill up a portion of both the ear canal and bowl of the outer ear, making them smaller and more subtle than ITE hearing aids.

Bi-CROS

Designed for someone who has hearing loss in one, but not both ears, these hearing aids work to provide equal residual hearing to the wearer.

Linear Hearing Aid

This type of hearing aid amplifies sound regardless of the pitch. Sound can be amplified by percentage, but the device amplifies by the same amount regardless of the signal or what other sounds are simultaneously present. In other words, it doesn’t filter sound.

Receiver

The receiver is the speaker inside the hearing aid that picks up and provides sound to the wearer.

Feedback

Often heard in online meetings or over other speaker devices, feedback is the result of a device picking up its own output and re-amplifying the sound. This can occur with hearing aids as well.

Feedback Suppressor

Some newer hearing aids feature a feedback suppressor designed to reduce feedback for the wearer.

Impression

Audiologists and healthcare professionals create an impression of the concha and ear canal to produce a custom fit hearing aid designed to fit the patient’s ear property, improving comfort and performance.

T-Switch

Designed to be used with hearing aid-compatible devices, the t-switch allows wearers to pick up the magnetic field on devices, like a broadcast.

Frequently asked questions

What is audiology in medical terminology?

The word audiology is made up of audio, meaning ‘to hear’ and logy, ‘the study of.’ Audiology is the study of hearing and, because balance also comes from the inner ear, that too is part of audiology.

What are the 5 levels of hearing loss?

Stage one is mild hearing loss, such as being unable to hear a watch ticking, or very quiet whispers.

As hearing loss progresses into stage two, this includes louder whispers and normal, albeit more subdued, conversation.

Stage three is considered moderately severe and occurs when patients can no longer hear normal conversation.

Stage four occurs when household sounds, like a washing machine or dishwasher, can no longer be heard.

Stage five, which is categorized as profound hearing loss, occurs when louder sounds like leaf blowers, concerts, or louder sounds closer to you cannot be heard.

What are the 3 main types of hearing loss?

Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage or deformation of the inner ear or acoustic nerve.

Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound cannot pass from the outer ear to the inner ear. This can be caused by fluid, damage, or a birth defect.

Lastly, mixed hearing loss occurs when a patient is suffering from both types of hearing loss and is often more severe and profound than either condition by itself. Learn more about hearing and balance disorders.

What are the words used in a hearing test?

The Words in Noise Test (WIN) consists of 70 one-syllable words divided into two lists that are recorded with a noisy background. The test mimics real life situations with the loudness of speech.