When you work your muscles strenuously, they get tired. That’s an easily understood physiological reaction that even young children grasp intuitively. For people with hearing loss, the act of listening requires more effort and exertion than for those with normal hearing, and one of the side effects of hearing impairment is fatigue when faced with common, everyday listening situations.

Left untreated, a person with hearing loss may spend all their energy simply coping with the demands of a job or a day at school. They may have little left over for home life, hobbies, or entertainment. Hearing under such circumstances can be hard work, as draining as a job that requires heavy physical exertion.

At Hearing & Balance Services of Reston, we understand the demands of impaired hearing. They help with hearing tests, recommending and fitting assistive devices to make hearing easier and less fatiguing for you.

The role of the brain in hearing

Any sensory system is a complex interaction between your body and brain. When you see something, your eyes don’t deliver images to your brain. Instead, nerves transmit signals which your brain then interprets as images.

Your ears work the same way. Sounds around you enter your ear and get converted first to mechanical motion, which then stimulates tiny hairs called cilia in the cochlea. Movement of these hairs creates nerve impulses that travel to the brain.

Three areas in your brain interpret sound, decipher, and create speech.

The temporal lobe, behind your ears, receives the impulses from your ears and converts signals to what you perceive as sounds. Within this lobe on the left side is Wernicke’s area, and its primary function is comprehending the sounds that make up speech. Broca’s area, located near the bottom of the left frontal lobe, produces the return impulses necessary to produce speech.

The burden of hearing loss

One type of hearing loss involves damage to the cilia. Each tiny hair is responsible for transmitting a particular frequency. When a hair is damaged, your brain no longer receives information about that frequency. The brain now has to work harder to interpret auditory signals, since it’s missing information.

Your brain may cope by gathering information from other sensory systems not normally related to hearing. For example, a person with high-frequency hearing loss may not be able to perceive the sound of paper shuffling, that whispery sound created by gentle friction. If the person knows that sound from a previous point in their life before hearing loss, the brain may draw on the memory to translate the sight of paper movement into a sound perception, even though the ears no longer provide auditory information to support the brain.

While this is a “successful” example of hearing loss compensation, your brain is always reaching for extra data to fill in what your hearing no longer supplies. These demands require extra processing that’s unnecessary for a person with normal hearing. While you aren’t burning energy in the form of muscle movement, you are burning energy in brain processing.

Just as a computer chip heats up when it’s worked to the limits of its capacity, so too does the brain become fatigued with this extra processing, resulting in the sometimes overwhelming fatigue that hearing-impaired people experience due to the demands of ordinary communication.

Relieving the strain

Hearing aids can provide several strategies to help you bypass listening fatigue. First, customized amplification can boost those frequencies in decline, or provide overtones that you can still hear. Hearing aids can also block background noise, a distraction that often increases the stress on impaired hearing.

Listening fatigue is real. Contact Hearing & Balance Services of Reston today to get started on your solution.