An audiologist is a specialist in hearing and the auditory system. This means they’re an expert in the processes of the outer and inner ear, and their connection to the hearing centres of the brain. Audiologists investigate, diagnose, and treat problems relating to the auditory system.
Disorders of the ear can affect the hearing, and can also cause significant problems with balance. Audiologists work with people of all ages, but some may specialise in the care of children, with neonatal and pre-school hearing tests becoming more widespread globally and helping to identify children with hearing loss for early intervention and help. Hearing loss in children can range from congenital profound deafness to easily treated conditions like glue ear or waxy build up. Some audiologists work specifically with people who have special needs or learning disabilities, and some audiologists go into research.
Audiologists usually work in hearing or balance and fall clinics. Hearing problems disproportionately affect older people, and so a high number of an audiologist’s patients will be elderly. Investigations into hearing loss include tests where sounds are played at different pitch and volume, and into different ears to determine the extent, and possibly the cause, of the hearing loss.
Audiologists in hearing clinics recommend interventions to improve hearing, such as the use of devices like hearing aids or cochlear implants. Hearing aids are becoming more sophisticated all the time and there is now a vast array of options for improving hearing. Most hearing aids work by acting as a small amplifier inserted into the ear canal, and there are now hearing aids that are almost invisible. People with recurrent ear infections or high levels of ear drainage and people with malformations of the ear canal but who have a functional inner ear have the option of bone anchored hearing aids. Bone-anchored hearing aids bypass the outer and middle ear, using the bones of the skull to transfer sound vibrations to the inner ear. For some people with acquired or congenital (from birth) hearing loss, cochlear implants may be appropriate, which work by replicating the complex processes of the inner ear, working in place of the non-functioning parts of the ear. This differs from other traditional hearing aids which typically act by making sounds louder; cochlear implants act as a replacement for damaged parts of the auditory system.
Audiologists work with hearing test technicians, ear nose and throat (ENT) doctors or surgeons, and they usually work within specialist clinics. Audiologists, particularly those who work with children, may also work with or refer to educational specialists, as children with hearing loss may need specialist help with their educational needs and learning to live with hearing loss from a young age. These specialists can include teachers who work with children who have special educational needs, sign language facilitators, and counsellors. Care of the child with hearing loss requires a multidisciplinary approach and will include support and education for the family as well as the affected child.
Audiologists can work with, or be consulted by, balance and falls clinics. Disorders of the inner ear causing problems with balance can be debilitating and include Meniere’s Disease, labyrinthitis, and Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV).