Understanding the “Occlusion Effect”
As an audiologist, I’m familiar with the most frequently reported issue with hearing aids: the “occlusion effect”. This refers to the common complaint that wearing hearing aids alters the sound of one’s own voice, often making it sound echoing, hollow, booming, or like speaking into a barrel. It is one of the biggest side effects for new hearing aid users. Patients often seek to amplify the sounds of others but not their own voices, leading to this issue.
Side note: Occlusion can also occur when your ear is plugged with ear wax or you have water stuck inside your ear canal.
Why My Voice Sounds Bad With Hearing Aids
The reason you may experience a louder perception of your own voice while wearing hearing aids is due to two primary factors:
- Plugging of the ear canal: Hearing aids physically block the ear canal in a manner similar to earplugs or even inserting a finger. This can cause your voice to sound louder, as the sound waves produced by your voice bounce back to your eardrum after hitting the obstruction (hearing aid, earplug, or finger). This effect, known as the “occlusion effect,” can be verified with probe microphone measurements, which show an increase in sound pressure levels in the ear canal by 20dB at frequencies below 500Hz.
- The proximity of microphones to the mouth: The microphones in hearing aids are placed close to the mouth, so they naturally pick up and amplify the wearer’s voice. This can make your voice seem louder than you’re used to, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “ampclusion.”
See also how hearing aids can affect singing.
How Audiologists Adjust Hearing Aids For Occlusion
Hearing aids have improved significantly in recent years, reducing the occlusion effect for many users. If you’re struggling with the occlusion effect, here are some suggestions:
- Switch to a behind-the-ear hearing aid with an open earpiece: Modern hearing aids have advanced feedback prevention technology that enables the ear canal to remain open. An open earpiece has holes or vents that allow sound waves to escape, reducing the occlusion effect. The bigger the vent, the less occlusion will occur.
- Insert the hearing aid deeper into the ear canal: The ear canal is made up of a cartilaginous outer portion and a bony inner portion next to the eardrum. The deeper the device sits in the ear canal, the less occlusion there will be.
- Turn down the low frequencies: If your hearing aid has frequency-specific amplification controls, you may want to decrease the levels at 250Hz and 500Hz. However, keep in mind that this will also affect the way you hear everything else.
- Give yourself time to adjust: Wearing a hearing aid takes time to get used to. If you consistently wear the device, your brain will eventually accept the new sound as normal and you will experience less irritation with your own voice.
If you’re still having difficulty adjusting to your hearing aid, seek the assistance of a professional audiologist for personalized support.