A loss of spatial hearing presents itself as the inability to distinguish spatial cues. People with spatial loss of hearing find it difficult to tell who is speaking in a noisy room or where a certain sound is coming from. This makes it difficult for a person to cut out background noise and hold a conversation in a crowded place, such as a restaurant, bar, airport, or movie theater. Interestingly enough, spatial hearing loss does not stem from the ear. Instead, it is thought to occur within the brain pathways that interpret noise.
Spatial loss of hearing is especially common in children as well as adults over the age of 60. However, it can occur in anyone, regardless of age. This can be especially frustrating for children in school – they find it hard to differentiate the teacher’s voice from other noises in class.
Audiologists are able to diagnose spatial hearing disorder with a test called the Listen in Spatialized Noise-Sentences, or LiSN-S, test. This test measures how well a person can use pitch and spatial cues to distinguish speech among background noise. This lets the audiologist determine just how severe the person’s loss of spatial hearing is.
The loss of spatial hearing can come with other hearing issues. These conditions include loss of high-frequency and/or low-frequency hearing. Because these other forms of hearing loss are easily treatable with hearing aids, it is easier to reduce the effects of spatial hearing loss in people who suffer other forms of hearing loss as well. Hearing aids aren’t a magic bullet for everyone. In fact, for some sufferers of spatial hearing loss, hearing aids can actually make the problem worse.
Spatial hearing loss often occurs as a result of aging– audio nerve damage is often a fact of life for many older people and happens naturally as the years go by. Age-related spatial hearing deficits may occur because of medications, injury, vascular insufficiencies, or underlying medical conditions and diseases. If you notice sudden hearing loss within a twenty-four to seventy-two hour window, seek medical attention right away. Sudden hearing loss involving the middle ear may be due to illness, infection, or blockages that respond well to early treatment. If an infection or other underlying illness is causing the sudden loss of hearing and is not treated immediately, it could progress to the inner ear, seriously damaging auditory nerve pathways and resulting in permanent deafness or loss of spatial hearing.
A person experiencing sudden changes in hearing involving unilateral hearing loss also has an increased risk of spatial deficit. If you’re not sure whether your hearing has suddenly changed or not, make sure to get a hearing test. Scheduling regular tests is a good idea as well.