By Erin O’Donnell, Associate Director of Education and Global Hearing Health
In anticipation of Tinnitus Awareness Week, I sat down with House Institute audiologist Nina Ball. Over a lively Zoom interview, we discussed how her passion for hearing health first began, observations she has made within her field, and her experience helping patients with tinnitus. As a diagnostic audiologist, Dr. Ball joins us in our mission of creating a world where all may hear through her commitment to direct service: providing ear and hearing care for dozens of patients each month.
What are your title and responsibilities?
My name is Nina Ball and I am a doctor of audiology — an audiologist. A lot of people don’t know what an audiologist is. What we do is identify, assess, and manage those who are having difficulty with hearing and/or balance disorders. I have been an audiologist for the past 12 years and joined the well-established staff here at the House Ear Clinic about a year ago. My duties here include hearing tests and any type of specialty diagnostic test. If anyone comes in feeling dizzy, experiencing ringing in their ears, having some difficulty hearing, or facial paralysis, I (or someone else on our diagnostic team) would be the one to assess and identify what those problems are.
What do you value most about your work?
As cliché as it sounds, what I value most is the ability to help someone. I got into audiology because both of my uncles were completely deaf and unable to communicate with the family. One was born deaf and the other became so via an accident. Growing up that was how it was. I don’t ever remember a time when a doctor did an assessment to see if there was any type of help for either one of them. In hindsight, possibly a surgery or something as simple as a set of hearing aids could have helped them communicate with us a lot better. Anytime I see anyone with what they may feel is something mild, it takes me back to dealing with my family and I immediately want to figure out how I can help — that is what drives me and why I get up every morning to do what I do.
To date, what professional achievement are you most proud of?
Graduating! A master’s degree at the time I initially pursued audiology was the gold standard. I did not have a doctorate, nor did I need a doctorate to work as an audiologist. But that changed. My greatest professional achievement so far was getting my doctoral degree in 2012.
Can you explain the difference between dispensing, diagnostic, and cochlear audiologists?
I think there is a more interesting segmentation here at the House Institute versus other places. Audiologists have the capability and wherewithal to work in all these areas. Some may require a bit more special training or credentialing. Because we have physicians here (otologists), cochlear implant specialists, and dispensing audiologists — essentially departments within departments — we are designated certain jobs. Diagnostic audiologists focus specifically on testing hearing, dispensing audiologists will see people to handle hearing aids and possibly bone anchor devices, and the cochlear implant audiologists work with implants. But again, we all have the ability to do any of these things. Interoperative monitoring is something that we all do. In some practices there are pediatric audiologists and educational audiologists. I have been in practices before where you do it all, from testing to dispensing, but here we are more compartmentalized.
What current or potential research direction stands out to you?
I have seen a lot of people — mostly women who are middle aged — complain of trouble hearing family in restaurants or speech with background noise, but when tested their hearing shows up as normal. It would be interesting to research this. I don’t know if this could be related to hormonal changes, or something else. For someone to have the perception of immense difficulty hearing and yet a normal hearing test, indicates to me that something could be going on with their auditory processing. To my knowledge, little to no research has been done around this observation and this could be a great study to further hearing science.
What is your experience with tinnitus as an audiologist?
Tinnitus is interesting as common as it is. It is the perception of sound, whether it be ringing, buzzing, or clicking, when there is nothing there—just the perception of the presence of something. It can happen in one ear or both and it can be constant for some and intermittent for others. 85% of people who come through the door here probably have some perception of tinnitus. Unfortunately, for those who have chronic tinnitus and are debilitated by it, there is no cure at this time. Still, there are plenty of things that can help. First, you want to get a hearing test. Chances are that most have some hearing loss as well. Depending on what the results are, a treatment plan is provided. My best recommendations for those experiencing tinnitus are as follows: If you are someone around a lot of noise, whether it be music or a hazardous work environment, make sure you are wearing ear protection. Also, for those who drink a lot of coffee, are under a lot of stress, or have a lot of salt in their diets, know that these things can all exacerbate the phenomenon. Try your best to relax and reduce your consumption of coffee and salt.
What would you like the general public to know about tinnitus?
Unfortunately, once your hearing starts to go you can’t bring back your natural hearing. We forget that we live in a noisy world and expose ourselves to a lot of unnecessary “noise”. I say “noise” because noise to me could be music to you. Earbuds are a prime example. I tell people that if someone sitting next to you can hear what you are listening to, the volume is way too loud. The earbud is right next to your eardrum. Keep the music to a nice, moderate level. For those on various medications, pay attention to the side effects, because tinnitus can sometimes happen as a result.
What are some new directions in your field?
Every 2-3 years there are big improvements with hearing aids. The goal is always to help them sound more natural to hearing aid users. Because people will typically wait 7-10 years past when they first needed hearing aids, the transition to using hearing aids can be hard. Battery life in hearing aids is always a topic of concern. Rechargeable hearing aids and increasingly hearing devices that work with the bone and incorporate nanotechnology are popular.
What effect do you hope telling your story will have on others?
Knowledge! Don’t be afraid to ask questions and come get a hearing test. The majority of primary care physicians don’t request a hearing test from their patients. And honestly, anyone over the age of 40, certainly 50, should probably get their hearing tested. Be your own advocate and at least get a baseline test so you know where your hearing thresholds lay. Whatever the outcome, know you are not alone. Especially if you are someone who has tinnitus. Although there is not a fast, hard cure, a treatment plan is possible.
What do you like to do outside of work — your passion or hobby?
My daughter just turned three and she is a bundle of feisty joy! She and my family are my focus right now, as well as trying to stay sane and enjoy my life the best I can during these times!
Share your story with us! Whether a patient, donor, or hearing care advocate, we want to hear from you. Your story is powerful and can help bring awareness to the importance of hearing health. Email firstname.lastname@example.org