A loss of spatial hearing presents itself as the inability to distinguish spatial cues. For example, if a person suffers from spatial loss of hearing, they would likely be unable to tell where a sound came from. They would also have a difficult time picking one person’s voice out of a crowd. 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. Perhaps surprisingly, the ear is not the source of spatial hearing loss. The brain is actually the culprit – the pathways that interpret sound are the root of spatial loss of hearing.
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.
To diagnose spatial loss of hearing, audiologists use the Listen in Spatialized Noise-Sentences, or LiSN-S test. The LisN-S test determines how a person uses pitch and spatial cues in order to pick out certain sounds from background noise. This allows the audiologist to know just how severe the hearing loss is.
Spatial hearing loss does not always occur on its own. It is quite often accompanied by high-frequency and/or low-frequency hearing loss. These issues can be treated with hearing aids, which helps with the spatial loss of hearing 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.
As to when spatial hearing loss happens, it often happens later in life, as audio nerve damage occurs for a variety of reasons including the normal aging process. Medications, injury, vascular insufficiencies, or underlying medical conditions and diseases are also factors in the loss of spatial hearing. Sudden hearing loss that is noticed within a twenty-four to seventy-two hour span needs to be evaluated immediately. Some forms of sudden hearing loss can be helped if its treated right away. Causes can be blockage, illness, or infection–all of which 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 if your hearing is changing, you should go get it tested right away.