Imagine being completely deaf in one ear.
You can hear most things but not soft sounds that come from your deaf side…and you tend to have trouble with directionality, telling which direction sounds come from.
For the nine million people in the US who suffer from this type of hearing loss, there have been only two main options, until recently.
One uses a microphone in the deaf ear that sends sounds via radio signals to a processor that sits on the working ear. The other option is a device that’s surgically implanted into the skull (behind the deaf ear) that captures sound and conducts it through skull bones to the working ear. Both options help patients hear more sounds and even improve directionality in some patients, but the first option doesn’t provide good sound quality…and the second option, because it involves surgery and a permanent implant, isn’t something many people want to do, said Michael Seidman, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
But now, there’s new audio technology that helps you hear more sounds…may improve directionality…provides good quality sound…and doesn’t require surgery or wearing unsightly devices in both ears. In fact, when you use the system, you can hardly see it or feel it.
What’s wild is that one part of this new technology is worn where you would never expect it—inside the mouth!
SoundBite is the first nonsurgical hearing device that works by using bone conduction. To illustrate that concept, think of how noisy it sounds when you scratch your scalp or munch on crunchy foods, such as carrots or ice cubes.
What you’re hearing is the sound being conducted through the bones in your skull or mouth, instead of through the normal route, which is through the air and then into the ear. Eventually, whether through the air or the bones, the sound arrives at the inner ear, the cochlea. From there, the signals are sent to the brain.
This is how SoundBite works: A tiny microphone sits just inside the nonfunctioning ear and is attached by a small, clear wire to a small black device that hides behind the back of that ear. The microphone picks up sounds and wirelessly sends the signal to a small receiver that is custom-made by a dentist to clip behind two adjacent upper back teeth. From there, the sounds are converted to miniscule, imperceptible vibrations that are sent through the teeth and skull bones and eventually to both cochleas, and then the functioning cochlea sends the vibrations as sounds to the brain.
Both parts of the device are comfortable and removable. The in-the-mouth part can be worn while eating and drinking. You can take it out when you brush your teeth and floss, and you can take it out before bed if you prefer not to sleep with it. Both parts should last for about three years. The part in the mouth needs to be charged every six to eight hours, and the behind-the-ear part needs to be charged every nine to 11 hours. (You get two in-the-mouth parts when you buy the device, so one can charge while you’re wearing the other.) Charging each takes about two-and-a-half hours.
NOW HEAR THIS
Research shows that the technology doesn’t cause damage to teeth. It won’t restore hearing in the deaf ear, but the average improvement in detecting speech is about 26%, and 95% of users have said that they would recommend the system to a friend. There is no research yet proving that the device improves directional hearing, but Dr. Seidman noted that it tends to improve directionality in some patients—about the same amount as the two older devices.
The quality of hearing, as mentioned earlier, tends to be good when sound is conducted through bone. “But it’ll never be exactly as crisp as what you’d hear naturally,” I learned from Joanna Roufos, AuD, CCC-A, a doctor of audiology at Manhattan/Queens Audiology in New York. The good news is that with the SoundBite, and with any of the devices, you’ll hear a full range of frequencies—from bass to treble.
SoundBite is available at more than 50 hearing centers in the US. If you’re interested in learning more about it, use the “Find a Doctor” tool at SoundBiteHearing.com.
The SoundBite system is expensive—it costs about $6,800, and replacement parts cost a total of roughly $3,700 every three years. But none of the three options is cheap. For comparison, the surgical option costs about $10,000 and you’ll likely need to replace the outer processor, which costs about $4,700, every five to 10 years. With the older nonsurgical option, the two wireless ear pieces (a microphone for one ear and a receiver for the other ear) cost around $3,000 or more. Insurance coverage for each device varies.