My experience trying out CROS hearing aids for single-sided deafness
Three years ago, at the age of 34, I lost functional hearing in my left ear through sudden sensorineural hearing loss. It happened fast—I was listening to a presentation at the school here in Spain where I was teaching, and out of nowhere came a loud screeching sound that filled my head with pressure. Just like that, my hearing in one ear was gone.
Initially, my treatment was aimed at seeing if my hearing could be restored. But after about six months of many different therapies, it became clear that my hearing probably wasn't coming back. It's not certain, but I most likely developed something known as endolymphatic hydrops, which is associated with Meniere's disease. An ENT specialist suggested that I consult with a private audiologist to discuss hearing aid options. Of course, I was keen to try anything that could improve my situation, a journey I've chronicled on my blog, My Hearing Loss Story.
During my consultation with the audiologist, I took various hearing tests, including the usual pure tone audiometry, bone conduction, loudness discomfort, and word recognition. After considering the results, the audiologist told me that the only device that could possibly provide some help was something known as a Contralateral Routing of Signal hearing aid, better known as a "CROS," which is made by several manufacturers. I decided I would give it a try.
CROS for single-sided deafness
CROS is a hearing aid technology for people with unilateral hearing, also known as single-sided deafness. The typical wearer is someone who has relatively normal hearing in one ear and hearing that can’t be helped with standard hearing aids in the other.
The CROS is worn on both sides. On the "bad ear," it has a device to pick up sound, which it then routes to a device worn on the "good ear." The wearer also hears the sound from the good side naturally in their working ear, without amplification.
I had several hopes for the device—primarily that it would give me some hearing ability on my left (deaf) side and help me regain some confidence in communicating with other people. To do so, it would need to provide sound quality clear enough to allow me to interpret speech on my left side, as well as better handle background noise.
Fortunately, I was told I could try out the device for three months, and if it didn't work out, I would be refunded. I'd read that some people really benefit from their CROS hearing aids, including the ability to hear in background noise to the point it was like they didn’t have a deaf side anymore.
Getting fit with a CROS
I was very happy with the way my new ear looked. The aid components were a similar color to my hair and if I chose to wear my hair down, they were almost invisible. However, I actually liked other people to see them. When traveling on the subway, for example, I would tuck my hair behind my ears so that they were visible. I liked that my hearing loss could now be seen.
Before I received my hearing aids, I had felt some frustration at the fact that people had no visible clue of any difficulties I might be having with communication. But with my new ear, if I failed to react to someone on my deaf side, or didn’t move out of the way for someone, I had a visible reason for my lack of response. This made me feel more relaxed on public transport, and in the city. I didn’t feel like I was constantly looking to my left to check if there was someone there, or if the lips of the person next to me were moving.
Some good aspects
The main positive outcome of my new ear was that it was really wonderful to have some sense of hearing again in my deaf ear. If someone was speaking to me on my deaf side, the aid would make a high-pitched distorted sound, similar to a "beep," for each syllable spoken. These beeps would alert me to turn and focus my attention on my deaf side. Without the aid, I would be clueless about the presence of anyone next to me, on this side. It was comforting to know that if there was a sound on my deaf side, such as someone speaking, or a car approaching from the left whilst I was crossing a road, then I would be alerted.
Frustrations with the device
I also had some frustrating experiences with my new ear. The component in my deaf ear kept popping out. I would fit the mold correctly inside my ear, and within minutes, the aid would have squeezed its way out, so that it no longer fit snugly. This meant that throughout the day, I would keep having to push the mold back into my ear.
More importantly—although I was happy that I would now be aware if someone was speaking on my deaf side—the hearing aid didn’t help me understand speech. The high-pitched beeping, which occurred in time with spoken syllables, became an uncomfortable sensation. After my hearing loss, I had developed a sensitivity to noise, and the job of the aid was to amplify sound—this obviously did not help my sensitivity situation. I became frustrated because I couldn’t make sense of the beeps. I knew they represented syllables, but however hard I tried I couldn’t hear any difference in the tones to identify letter sounds or words.
My good ear was also hindered. My brain seemed to be paying so much attention to the strange sensations and uncomfortable noises brought on by the introduction of my new ear, that it struggled to concentrate and understand speech. So, in effect, the aid actually hindered my ability to follow a conversation.
One of my other hopes had been for the aid to help me hear better in background noise. This was not the case. The mix of music and chatter experienced in a restaurant was overwhelming for my new ear. It would produce screeching sounds and amplify all the noise I didn’t want to focus on.
For example, going out for a meal for a friend’s birthday with a group of people was a confidence-draining experience. I was only able to focus on one person talking if I could get close enough to them with my good ear to hear them. This meant that I wasn’t involved in the dynamics of the group chatter. I felt isolated, and I resorted to smiling and nodding at people to fake my following of any group discussion or jokes.
City noises overly amplified for me
The amplification of sound from my new ear of everyday city noise—such as motorcycles, construction, and sirens—was at times very uncomfortable. Therefore, a walk around the city would result in me opening up my aids or covering them to stop them working when confronted with one of these overly intense sounds. My life in a busy city didn’t seem to be a suitable place for my new ear. The city noises, when amplified, were just too uncomfortable and weren’t helpful in making sense of the noises around me.
The only place where the amplification of noise didn’t cause too much noise discomfort was at home. But home was the one place I felt like I didn’t really need to wear my hearing aid. At home, I could generally hear OK when speaking with my boyfriend in the relatively quiet environment of our apartment.
There were also some strange experiences. One day, I had fitted the right component of the aid into my ear, when I started to hear what sounded like a radio. I had no idea where the noise was coming from. I thought that it was maybe something to do with the Bluetooth connectivity of the aid. Or perhaps noise was being picked up from the television that was playing in the living room.
Another time, I fitted the aids into my ears, and I realized that they felt much better. The sounds being produced seemed more natural and I wasn’t receiving the uncomfortable screeching noises. Then I realized the reason they were feeling more natural was because the battery had died—the aids weren’t turned on!
Different for each person
After three months of wearing it, I returned my CROS hearing aid. Even after several follow-ups, my audiologist understood that the CROS hadn’t provided me with sufficient help. I felt some sadness when saying good-bye to my new ear, as it had provided me with some hope. While my experience wasn't great, other people have reported success. So, if you're considering a CROS, bear in mind that it's different for each person.
Although I have accepted my unilateral hearing, I do often wish that there was something that could provide some help with my hearing difficulties. I have read about bone-anchored hearing systems, but these devices are implanted through an invasive procedure. It can reportedly help some people with single-sided deafness, though I am unsure as to whether I am a good candidate for this type of aid.
For now, I'm back to living my life with single-sided deafness. I go through my days unable to localize sound and difficulty hearing amongst background noise. But I seem to have adapted to life without full sound, and all this feels very "normal" to me now. The journey continues.