Sharon Macner was a senior majoring in Communication Disorders and Speech Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder and planning to go to graduate school in the field when she took a course in audiology. That experience opened a new career path for her. Audiology become a source of inspiration and changed everything. She went on to earn her Master’s degree in Audiology from the University of Washington and to practice in California.
In 1995 Macner relocated to the North Country to accept a teaching and clinical instruction position at SUNY Plattsburgh in the Communication disorders and Speech Science Department. Thirteen years later, after completing her Doctorate in Audiology from Central Michigan University, she set out to establish her own practice providing hearing evaluations and hearing technology for patients of all ages. In addition, she specializes in tinnitus and sound sensitivity disorders.
Today, her practice, Champlain Valley Audiology, has two providers, Macner and Jessica Tompkins, as well as two office staff, Dana Curle and Donna Schmitt.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND HEARING LOSS & TINNITUS
Asked about the causes of hearing loss, Macner explained, “Inside the ear is a small spiral cavity, similar in shape to a snail’s shell, called the cochlea. All along the base of the cochlea are little hairs (called cilia) that vibrate as sound waves enter. The most common type of hearing loss occurs when those tiny hair cells are damaged.”
Macner has tools and visualization aids available to help demonstrate the concept to patients. She offered an example. “Imagine a lawn with rows of bent and trampled grass. The blades of grass represent the cilia inside your cochlea. Once the grass is bent, it cannot sway with a breeze. This is a simple example of what has happened when there is hearing loss.”
Short, high volume sounds can cause immediate damage that is irreversible. These sudden impulse sounds break the cilia in the cochlea and the effects are permanent. In addition, prolonged exposure to medium-to-loud sounds can cause damage. Classic examples of this might include operating a lawn mower, snow blower or recreational vehicle without hearing protection. Live concerts can also cause cilia damage.
There are also other causes of hearing loss. “I have evaluated many people over the years that are passionate about recreational shooting and hunting but less passionate or informed about the use of hearing protection,” Macner observed. “For most of these weapons, one shot alone, without adequate hearing protection, permanently removes the tiny cells which deliver sound to the brain. Shot after shot, year after year, more and more
hearing ability is removed. And we can’t forget our veterans either. They are exposed to many forms of combat weaponry and commonly experience hearing loss and tinnitus.”
Macner encouraged North Country workers who have occupational hearing hazards (i.e. manufacturing, construction and other loud work environments) to consider hearing protection that is most appropriate for their exposure. Today, OSHA noise exposure regulations have drastically reduced the impact of occupational hazards for workers across the country.
Macner also has a strong interest in the study, evaluation and management of tinnitus and other related sound sensitivity disorders. “Tinnitus is different from hearing loss,” she explained, “It is the perception of sound or noise within the head which does not originate from an outside source. For those affected by tinnitus, it is often described as a “ringing” or buzzing sound. The brain has such a strong need for sound that when hearing loss occurs, it responds by increasing the excitatory neurotransmitters which deliver an extra punch of sound activity on the auditory nerve. Current research indicates that for a person with tinnitus, the brain doesn’t block this hyperactivity and they actually hear it on the nerve,” she explained.
ADVANCES IN TECHNOLOGY
“Today’s devices are not your mother’s hearing aids,” emphasized Macner. The technology has become incredibly advanced. The modern hearing aid, which has become a sophisticated computer that is programmable to the specific needs of the patient, is also dramatically smaller and less visible than the hearing aids of the 1990s. In addition, many hearing aids now include Bluetooth technology, which has a long list of valuable applications. Patients can connect their hearing aids to a television or mobile device for a better experience. Some devices even include fall detection, which can alert a family member or caregiver.
Maximizing the efficacy of these devices, however, is dependent on early intervention, according to Macner. “When programed correctly, today’s hearing aids can yield impressive results as long as the person with the hearing loss has not gone too many years with significantly reduced hearing. That is the message we want to get out. Do not wait too long to treat hearing loss. Fixing an impaired system is more time sensitive than most people know.”
For most people, hearing loss occurs over time. “Slow elimination of sound may not be recognized at first. I often have to deliver news to a patient that they really can’t hear well, which is frequently not readily accepted,” Macner explained. “However, when I can put some lost sound back into their ears and contrast it with their level of hearing without a device, it is a moment of awareness, especially after what may have been years or decades of missed conversations. It is often an emotional moment.”
The equipment used today to diagnose hearing loss is amazingly sophisticated. In Champlain Valley Audiology’s sound booth, there is equipment for all ages and needs. For example, Macner uses “Ducky”, a cute stuffed duck, as well as other stuffed farm animals for early intervention testing of toddlers aged seven months to 2 ½ years old. With this technology, she is able to diagnose their response during a critical development period.
A PASSION FOR SERVING PATIENTS
Helping patients improve their hearing has been a rewarding career for Macner. “Every day we are fortunate to help patients who have not heard well for years. Fitting hearing aids for a veteran before the Honor Flight, a Dad before his daughter’s wedding, a business person before an important meeting, or a Mom so that she can hear her son receive a prestigious award, these are our patients’ stories.”
Champlain Valley Audiology
14 Booth Drive
Plattsburgh, NY 12901