Patients who begin to experience difficulty hearing will generally be referred to one of two different types of "ear doctor" or hearing specialist: an audiologist or an otolaryngologist.
When you're confronting a hearing problem, it's useful to understand the differences between these two types of specialists. Being aware of the type of specialist you receive treatment from can give you some insights into your condition.
Hearing malfunctions treated by an otolaryngologist will essentially be medical in nature. They're often caused by a condition, such as a traumatic head injury or acoustic neuroma, that could potentially exhibit additional physical symptoms elsewhere in the body. An audiologist is more focused on specifically hearing conditions-- for example tinnitus and presbycusis-- that are not necessarily related to more general medical conditions.
Training and Treatment Methods
Audiologists and otolaryngologists are trained differently. Below is some information on the training and treatment methods specific to each type of hearing specialist:
Unlike an otolaryngologist, an audiologist has not been through medical school. Audiologists are not officially "medical doctors", but they are highly specialized professionals whose studies focus on hearing and, by extension, balance problems. An audiologist can be expected to have a Master's degree at the very least, and many continue their education on through the doctorate level.
An audiologist uses equipment like audiometers and computer software that tests a patient's response to auditory stimulation to determine how and why a patient isn't hearing properly.
Some possible treatments that an audiologist can give include cleaning the ear of obstructions like wax buildup, fitting and providing hearing aids, giving patients cochlear implants, and providing counseling services regarding hearing loss and hearing instrument usage.
Otolaryngologists are commonly called ear-nose-throat (ENT) doctors. They are medical doctors whose training has consisted of four years of medical school, a residency, and- in some cases- additional training in the form of a fellowship.
Ear-nose-throat doctors can write prescriptions for medications that can treat malfunctions and diseases of the ear. They can also perform surgery. Hearing and balance problems are sometimes caused by tumors or other obstructions that need to be surgically removed. Surgery that treats hearing problems could also repair damage to the skull base or temporal bones that has resulted from a traumatic injury.
Finding the Right Specialist
Patients experiencing hearing problems will usually first bring up the issue with their primary care physician. If it is determined or suspected that there is no medical reason (for example, a tumor) for the hearing loss, the patient could be sent to an audiologist.