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What is Pure-Tone Testing?

a pediatric ear doctor examining a child's ear

Hearing loss is a common feature of getting older. Nearly 30 million adults in the United States may experience undiagnosed hearing loss. Hearing loss within adults varies with age, with at least 25% of patients older than 50 years experiencing hearing loss and more than 50% of those older than 80 years. If you believe you are experiencing some hearing loss, then consult a hearing health professional

When hearing loss is suspected, your hearing health professional will suggest pure-tone testing in order to evaluate hearing deficiency by spot-checking certain frequencies. You may remember a similar hearing test conducted in school or at the doctor's office, raising your hand whenever you heard a beep. You may have also heard it referred to as an air conduction test. 

What Is Pure-tone Testing

The test itself is painless and non-invasive and simply used to help your hearing health professional determine the faintest tones a person can hear at varying pitches or frequencies. During the test, the patient will wear earphones that allow the sound to go through your outer and middle ear. Hearing loss between ears may vary, so the earphones are also used to isolate one ear at a time, to collect data from each individual ear. The earphones are connected to a machine that will deliver the tones and different sounds of speech to your ears.

You may be unable to use earphones or decline to wear them; for example, when testing on a child, some may refuse to wear them. In cases such as these, the sound will be played through speakers inside of a sound-booth, which does not test each ear individually. This specific type of pure-tone testing is called sound-field screening.

How Does It Work

During the pure-tone test, you will be asked to respond to the sounds that you can hear by making a visual or auditory indication that the sound has been heard. This can be by raising a finger or hand, pressing a button and pointing to the ear where you heard the sound, saying yes to indicate that you heard the sound.

In certain cases, a special variation on the pure-tone test will need to be done. This is known as a pure-tone bone test and occurs when there is earwax or fluid blocking the outer or middle ears. Your hearing health professional will put a small device behind your ear or on your forehead, which allows that sound to bypass the blockage through vibration. 

The signal will reach the inner ear directly, causing the skull to vibrate gently. Pure-tone testing will measure the response of the inner ear. The measurements are expansive enough to enable your hearing health professional to tell how well you hear and if there is anything causing hearing loss in the outer or middle ear.

Each of these hearing tests carried out serves a different purpose in order to help your hearing specialist to examine your hearing. From there, it will provide them with the information needed to determine the type and degree of hearing loss you may have, if at all.