When it comes to health matters, the internet is both a blessing and a curse. If you’re taking medication, you can look up the proper dosage, explore potential side effects, and compare your experience to the experience of thousands of others. Of course, using the internet to self-diagnose can also send you into a panic, causing you to think that you have terminal cancer when in reality all you have is a bad cold. You encounter a similar dilemma when it comes to online hearing tests. Maybe you’re starting to suspect that your hearing isn’t what it once was. You have to turn up the television louder and ask people to repeat themselves more frequently. When you’re in large crowds, you have trouble following what people are saying because of the overwhelming amount of noise. Or maybe you’ve spent many years working in a loud environment and are concerned about the toll it’s taken on your hearing. And so you go online, search for a hearing test, and see hundreds of options come up. Should you trust these tests? Can they really help you determine whether you have hearing loss? In this article, we’re going to give you the what, why, and how of hearing tests. By the end, you’ll understand how they work and whether you should trust an online hearing test.

How Hearing Tests Work

Before you can understand whether online hearing tests are valid, you need to know how professional hearing tests work. Typically, hearing tests are done in a quiet, sound-treated room or booth that is designed to minimize exterior noise that could affect the test. You are given headphones or earbuds that are connected to something called an audiometer, which is used to conduct the test. During the pure tone audiometry portion of the test, the audiologist will have you listen to different tones at different volumes and pitches. When you hear the tones, you will respond by pressing a button or raising a hand. Many of these tones are incredibly soft, and are designed to determine the quietest frequencies you can hear. During the speech audiometry portion of the test, you will listen to recorded or live speech and be asked to repeat back certain words. This allows the audiologist to determine which speech sounds you hear clearly and which present problems. Finally, an audiologist may perform a tympanometry test to evaluate your acoustic reflexes. A soft ear plug which creates pressure changes and sounds will be placed in your ear, allowing the audiologist to evaluate how well your eardrum is moving and the reflexive responses of your middle ear muscles. After the tests, the audiologist will compare your results to standard metrics to determine whether any hearing loss has occurred. A few important things to note about professional hearing tests:
  • They occur in a specially prepared room designed to minimize exterior acoustic interference.
  • They use specialized equipment, including the audiometer and the headphones.
These two factors are key in comparing online hearing tests to professional tests.

Should You Trust An Online Hearing Test?

Now let’s talk about online hearing tests. Are they a reliable substitute for professional hearing tests? In short, no. Here’s why. While computers can certainly generate tones and sounds at a variety of frequencies and volumes, there are a number of factors that can lead to you receiving misleading results. First, there are no federal guidelines or certifications for online hearing tests. There’s no way to ensure that the test you’re taking resembles the type of test a professional would administer, and your results may vary depending on the test you take. Second, it’s very difficult to isolate yourself completely from exterior noise. Even in your home, you still have to contend with the air conditioner, outside traffic, family members, and a host of other potential noise sources. These noises can make it more difficult to hear the softest tones, causing you to miss sounds you might hear in a professional test. When this happens, the test results are skewed. Third, if you’re like most people, you probably don’t have high quality headphones. Lower quality headphones may not be able to play sounds at certain frequencies, again leading you to miss sounds that you might normally hear in a professional test. And if you’re using your computer speakers to perform the test, you certainly won’t hear all the sounds since most computer speakers are exceptionally low quality. Finally, online hearing tests can’t provide a diagnosis. An audiologist can determine whether the cause of your hearing loss is something as simple as ear wax or as serious as a tumor. They can evaluate whether any medication you’re taking may be contributing to hearing loss and can also make recommendations if you need a hearing aid. Ultimately, the problem with online hearing tests is the same as all internet self-diagnosis: it’s easy to come to the wrong conclusions. Now, does this mean online hearing tests are useless? Certainly not. They can provide an indication that you may be suffering from hearing loss. For example, if you take a test and your results are drastically worse than the average, that could be an indicator that you’re suffering some form of hearing loss. Also, if you’re concerned that your hearing was damaged by a particular event, such as a loud concert, they can provide reassurance that your hearing has returned to normal.

So What Should You Do After Taking An Online Hearing Test?

If an online hearing test indicates that you have even minor hearing loss, you should make an appointment with an audiologist to be tested professionally. Why? Because even mild hearing loss can cause the brain to atrophy at an accelerated rate. A study at the University of Pennsylvania noted:

...people with hearing loss showed less brain activity on functional MRI scans when listening to complex sentences. Poorer hearers also had less gray matter in the auditory cortex, suggesting that areas of the brain related to auditory processing may show accelerated atrophy when hearing ability declines.

Additionally, mild hearing loss can lead to mental disorders, such as depression. As Dr. Chuan-Ming Li noted in a study done by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders:

[We] found that prevalence of moderate to severe depression was 4.9 percent for individuals who reported excellent hearing, 7.1 percent for those with good hearing and 11.4 percent for participants who reported having a little hearing trouble or greater hearing impairment (HI). Depression rates were higher in women than in men. The prevalence of depression increased as hearing impairment became worse...

Hearing loss is a serious condition, and if you suspect you may be experiencing hearing loss, you should see a professional immediately. They can give you a definite diagnosis, as well as make recommendations if you are experiencing hearing loss. And if you’re worried that you’ll be forced to wear a bulky hearing aid, you can put those fears to rest. Hearing aid technology has improved so much in recent years that there are now aids that are nearly invisible to the naked eye. Some aids also feature astonishing technology, such as background noise filters, Bluetooth connectivity to your smartphone, and binaural processing. These features can dramatically improve your hearing, which in turn dramatically improves your quality of life.

Conclusion: Trust A Professional

Online hearing tests can point you in the right direction when it comes to identifying hearing loss, but they can’t give you a definitive diagnosis and the results can be misleading. If you suspect you have even minor hearing loss, your best bet is to make an appointment with a professional. After all, this is your hearing we’re talking about. You don’t want to trust something so important to an internet test.