Audiometry; Hearing test; Audiography (audiogram)
An audiometry exam tests your ability to hear sounds. Sounds vary, based on their loudness (intensity) and the speed of sound wave vibrations (tone).
Hearing occurs when sound waves stimulate the nerves of the inner ear. The sound then travels along nerve pathways to the brain.
Sound waves can travel to the inner ear through the ear canal, eardrum, and bones of the middle ear (air conduction). They can also pass through the bones around and behind the ear (bone conduction).
The INTENSITY of sound is measured in decibels (dB):
- A whisper is about 20 dB.
- Loud music (some concerts) is around 80 to 120 dB.
- A jet engine is about 140 to 180 dB.
Sounds greater than 85 dB can cause hearing loss after a few hours. Louder sounds can cause immediate pain, and hearing loss can develop in a very short time.
The TONE of sound is measured in cycles per second (cps) or Hertz:
- Low bass tones range around 50 to 60 Hz.
- Shrill, high-pitched tones range around 10,000 Hz or higher.
The normal range of human hearing is about 20 to 20,000 Hz. Some animals can hear up to 50,000 Hz. Human speech is usually 500 to 3,000 Hz.
How the Test is Performed
Your health care provider may test your hearing with simple tests that can be done in the office. These may include completing a questionnaire and listening to whispered voices, tuning forks, or tones from an ear examination scope.
A specialized tuning fork test can help determine the type of hearing loss. The tuning fork is tapped and held in the air on each side of the head to test the ability to hear by air conduction. It is tapped and placed against the bone behind each ear (mastoid bone) to test bone conduction.
A formal hearing testing can give a more exact measure of hearing. Several tests may be done:
- Pure tone testing (audiogram) -- For this test, you wear earphones attached to the audiometer. Pure tones of a specific frequency and volume are delivered to one ear at a time. You are asked to signal when you hear a sound. The minimum volume required to hear each tone is graphed. A device called a bone oscillator is placed against the mastoid bone to test bone conduction.
- Speech audiometry -- This tests your ability to detect and repeat spoken words at different volumes heard through a head set.
- Immittance audiometry -- This test measures the function of the ear drum and the flow of sound through the middle ear. A probe is inserted into the ear and air is pumped through it to change the pressure within the ear as tones are produced. A microphone monitors how well sound is conducted within the ear under different pressures.
How to Prepare for the Test
No special steps are needed.
How the Test will Feel
There is no discomfort. The length of time varies. An initial screening may take about 5 to 10 minutes. Detailed audiometry may take about 1 hour.
Why the Test is Performed
This test can detect hearing loss at an early stage. It may also be used when you have hearing problems from any cause.
We often take for granted all of the sounds around us, the bark of a dog, the buzz of a bee, or the melody of our favorite symphony. Yet for many people, the world is a very quiet place. They've lost the ability to hear sounds in one or both ears. Let's talk about hearing loss. To understand how you lose hearing, you first need to know what normally happens inside your ear when you hear. Say that a fire engine roars past. First, the sound of the siren reaches your eardrum in your outer ear. Your eardrum vibrates, which moves three tiny bones in your middle ear. These bones push the sound along to the cochlea, a fluid-filled chamber in your inner ear. The cochlea is lined with tiny hairs that vibrate when the sound waves hit them. These hairs convert the sound waves into an electrical signal. That's when your brain realizes that a fire engine is headed toward you. Hearing loss can have many different causes. Loud noises, pressure changes while you're scuba diving, or a head injury can all damage the delicate structures in your ear that allow you to hear. Infections like measles, mumps, and meningitis can also damage the ear. Sometimes earwax can build up in your ear and block your hearing like a plug. As you get older, you may gradually lose your hearing, even if you don't have an illness or injury. When the damage or other problem is to your outer or middle ear, it's called conductive hearing loss. For example, your eardrum may not vibrate when you hear sound. Or, the tiny bones in your middle ear may not move sound to the inner ear. Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by a problem in the inner ear. Often it's because the tiny hair cells that move sound through the ear don't work right because of damage or disease, and stem cells in the ear can't keep up with the repair. If you have problems with both your inner and outer ear, then you have mixed hearing loss. So, how do you treat hearing loss? If you're noticing that voices sound fuzzy and you can't make out what people are saying, see your doctor for a hearing test. The doctor will examine your ears, and give you a test called audiometry to check the type and amount of hearing you've lost. You may also have imaging tests such as a CT or MRI scan if you've had a head injury. A hearing aid can amplify sounds to help you hear more clearly. Today's hearing aids are so small they're barely noticeable. If you have a buildup of earwax in your ear, an ear syringe filled with warm water can help flush it out. Sometimes surgery can be done to fix damage in your ear and improve your hearing. Don't accept hearing loss as an inevitable part of growing older. See your doctor for a hearing evaluation. Often, hearing loss that's due to a problem in your outer or middle ear can be reversed. Protect the hearing that you do have by avoiding loud noises, and wearing earplugs when you have to be exposed to loud sounds.
Normal results include:
- The ability to hear a whisper, normal speech, and a ticking watch is normal.
- The ability to hear a tuning fork through air and bone is normal.
- In detailed audiometry, hearing is normal if you can hear tones from 250 to 8,000 Hz at 25 dB or lower.
What Abnormal Results Mean
There are many kinds and degrees of hearing loss. In some types, you only lose the ability to hear high or low tones, or you lose only air or bone conduction. The inability to hear pure tones below 25 dB indicates some hearing loss.
The amount and type of hearing loss may give clues to the cause, and chances of recovering your hearing.
The following conditions may affect test results:
- Acoustic neuroma
- Acoustic trauma from a very loud or intense blast sound
- Age-related hearing loss
- Alport syndrome
- Chronic ear infections
- Ménière disease
- Ongoing exposure to loud noise, such as at work or from music
- Abnormal bone growth in the middle ear, called otosclerosis
- Ruptured or perforated eardrum
There is no risk.
Other tests may be used to determine how well the inner ear and brain pathways are working. One of these is otoacoustic emission testing (OAE) that detects sounds given off by the inner ear when responding to sound. This test is often done as part of a newborn screening. A head MRI may be done to help diagnose hearing loss due to an acoustic neuroma.
Amundsen GA. Audiometry. In: Fowler GC, ed. Pfenninger and Fowler's Procedures for Primary Care. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 59.
Kileny PR, Zwolan TA, Slager HK. Diagnostic audiology and electrophysiologic assessment of hearing. In: Flint PW, Francis HW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 134.
Lew HL, Tanaka C, Hirohata E, Goodrich GL. Auditory, vestibular, and visual impairments. In: Cifu DX, ed. Braddom's Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 50.
Last reviewed on: 4/13/2020
Reviewed by: Josef Shargorodsky, MD, MPH, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.