Clinicians encounter patients who report experiencing hearing difficulty (HD) even when audiometric thresholds fall within normal limits. When there is no evidence of audiometric hearing loss, it generates debate over possible biomedical and psychosocial etiologies. It is possible that self-reported HDs relate to variables within and/or outside the scope of audiology. The purpose of this study is to identify how often, on a population basis, people with normal audiometric thresholds self-report HD and to identify factors associated with such HDs.
This was a cross-sectional investigation of participants in the Beaver Dam Offspring Study. HD was defined as a self-reported HD on a four-item scale despite having pure-tone audiometric thresholds within normal limits (<20 dB HL0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 kHz bilaterally, at each frequency). Distortion product otoacoustic emissions and word-recognition performance in quiet and with competing messages were also analyzed. In addition to hearing assessments, relevant factors such as sociodemographic and lifestyle factors, environmental exposures, medical history, health-related quality of life, and symptoms of neurological disorders were also examined as possible risk factors. The Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression was used to probe symptoms associated with depression, and the Medical Outcomes Study Short-Form 36 mental score was used to quantify psychological stress and social and role disability due to emotional problems. The Visual Function Questionnaire-25 and contrast sensitivity test were used to query vision difficulties.
Of the 2783 participants, 686 participants had normal audiometric thresholds. An additional grouping variable was created based on the available scores of HD (four self-report questions), which reduced the total dataset to n = 682 (age range, 21–67 years). The percentage of individuals with normal audiometric thresholds who self-reported HD was 12.0% (82 of 682). The prevalence in the entire cohort was therefore 2.9% (82 of 2783). Performance on audiological tests (distortion product otoacoustic emissions and word-recognition tests) did not differ between the group self-reporting HD and the group reporting no HD. A multivariable model controlling for age and sex identified the following risk factors for HD: lower incomes (odds ratio [OR] $50,000+ = 0.55, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.30–1.00), noise exposure through loud hobbies (OR = 1.48, 95% CI = 1.15–1.90), or firearms (OR = 2.07, 95% CI = 1.04–4.16). People reporting HD were more likely to have seen a doctor for hearing loss (OR = 12.93, 95% CI = 3.86–43.33) and report symptoms associated with depression (Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression [OR = 2.39, 95% CI = 1.03–5.54]), vision difficulties (Visual Function Questionnaire-25 [OR = 0.93, 95% CI = 0.89–0.97]), and neuropathy (e.g., numbness, tingling, and loss of sensation [OR = 1.98, 95% CI = 1.14–3.44]).
The authors used a population approach to identify the prevalence and risk factors associated with self-reported HD among people who perform within normal limits on common clinical tests of auditory function. The percentage of individuals with normal audiometric thresholds who self-reported HD was 12.0%, resulting in an overall prevalence of 2.9%. Auditory and nonauditory risk factors were identified, therefore suggesting that future directions aimed at assessing, preventing, and managing these types of HDs might benefit from information outside the traditional scope of audiology.