Starkey Research & Clinical Blog

Will placing a receiver in the canal increase occlusion?

The influence of receiver size on magnitude of acoustic and perceived measures of occlusion.

Vasil-Dilaj, K.A., & Cienkowski, K.M. (2010). The influence of receiver size on magnitude of acoustic and perceived measures of occlusion. American Journal of Audiology 20, 61-68.

This editorial discusses the clinical implications of an independent research study. The original work was not associated with Starkey Laboratories and does not reflect the opinions of the authors.

The occlusion effect, an increase in bone conducted sound when the ear canal is occluded, is a consideration for many hearing aid fittings.  The hearing aid shell or earmold restricts the release of low-frequencies from the ear canal (Revit, 1992), resulting in an increase in low-frequency sound pressure level at the eardrum, sometimes up to 25dB (Goldstein & Hayes, 1965; Mueller & Bright, 1996; Westermann, 1987).  Hearing aid users suffering from occlusion will complain of an “echo” or “hollow” quality to their voices and hearing their own chewing can be particularly annoying. Indeed, perceived occlusion is reported to be a common reason for dissatisfaction with hearing aids (Kochkin, 2000).

Occlusion from a hearing aid shell or earmold is usually managed by increasing vent diameter or decreasing the length of the vent in order to decrease the acoustic mass of the vent (Dillon, 2001; Kiessling, et al, 2005). One potential risk of increasing vent diameter is increased risk of feedback, but this problem has been alleviated by improvements in feedback cancellation. Better feedback management has also resulted in more widespread use of open fit, receiver-in-canal (RIC) instruments which have proven effective in reducing measured and perceived occlusion (Dillon, 2001; Kiessling et al., 2005; Kiessling et al., 2003; Vasil & Cienkowski, 2006).

Though open fit BTE hearing instruments are designed to be acoustically transparent, some open fittings still result in perceived occlusion.  Interestingly, perceived occlusion is not always strongly or even significantly correlated with measured acoustic occlusion (Kiessling et al., 2005; Kuk et al., 2005; Kampe & Wynne, 1996), so it is apparent that other factors do contribute to the perception of occlusion.  The size of the receiver and/or eartip, as well as the size of the ear canal, affect the amount of air flow in and out of the ear canal and it seems likely that these factors could affect the amount of acoustic and perceived occlusion.

Thirty adults, 17 men and 13 women, participated in the study. All had normal hearing, unremarkable otoscopic examinations and normal tympanograms. Two measures of ear canal volume were obtained: volume estimates from the tympanometry screener and estimates determined from earmold impressions that were sent to a local hearing aid manufacturer.  Participants were fitted binaurally with RIC hearing instruments.  Instead of domes used clinically with RIC instruments flexible receiver sleeves designed specifically for research purposes were used.  Use of the special receiver sleeves allowed the researchers to increase the overall circumference of the receiver systematically so that six receiver size conditions could be evaluated:  no receiver, receiver only (with a circumference of 0.149 in.), 0.170 in., 0.190 in., 0.210in. and 0.230 in.

Real-ear unoccluded and occluded measures were obtained with subjects vocalizing the vowel /i/. Subjects monitored the level of their vocalizations via a sound level meter. Real ear occlusion effect (REOE) was determined by subtracting the SPL levels for the unoccluded response from the occluded response (REOR-REUR = REOE).  Subjective measures were obtained by asking subjects to rate their perception of occlusion on a five point scale ranging from “no occlusion” to “complete occlusion”. To avoid bias in the occlusion ratings, participants were not allowed to view the hearing aids or receiver sleeves until after testing was completed.

Results indicated that measured acoustic occlusion was very low for all conditions, especially below 500Hz, where it was below 2dB for most of the receiver conditions. For frequencies above 500Hz, REOE increased as receiver size increased. The no receiver and receiver only conditions had the least amount of measured occlusion and the largest receiver sizes had the most. There was no significant interaction between receiver size and frequency.

Perceived occlusion also increased as receiver size increased and though it was mild for most participants in most of the conditions, for the largest receiver condition, some participants rated occlusion as severe. Perceived occlusion was not significantly correlated with measured acoustic occlusion for low frequencies, and the two measures were only weakly correlated for frequencies between 700-1500Hz.

There was no significant relationship between either measure of ear canal volume and perceived or acoustic measures of occlusion. However, adequate ear canal volume to accommodate all receiver sizes was an inclusion criterion for the study, so the authors suggest that smaller ear canal volume could still be a factor in perceived or acoustic occlusion and may warrant further study.

The results of the current investigation show that occlusion was minimal for most of the receiver sizes. These findings are in agreement with previous studies of vented hollow molds, completely open IROS shells (Vasil & Cienkowski, 2006), large 2.4mm vents and silicone ear tips (Kiessling et al, 2005). REOEs for the two largest receivers matched results for a hollow mold with 1mm vent (Kuk et al, 2009) and the REOEs for the two smallest receivers matched results for hollow molds with 2mm and 3mm vents (Kuk et al, 2009).  The authors also point out that there was minimal insertion loss for all conditions. Insertion loss from closed earmolds can amount to 20dBHL (Sweetow, 1991) and can contribute to a perception of occlusion or poor voice quality.  The relative lack of insertion loss is yet another potential advantage of open and RIC fittings.

Perception of occlusion did increase with the size of the receiver, but overall differences were small. This is in agreement with prior research suggesting that reduction of air flow out of the ear canal results in more low-frequency energy in the ear canal (Revit, 1992), which can cause an increase in occlusion (Dillon, 2001). The authors point out that although subjects were not able to see the receivers prior to insertion, they were probably aware of the size and weight differences and could have been influenced by the perception of a larger object in the ear as opposed to actual occlusion. This may also be the case for hearing aid users, perhaps particularly so for individuals with smaller or tortuous ear canals.

The occlusion effect can be challenging, especially when anatomical or other constraints result in the use of minimal venting for individuals with good low-frequency hearing. The results reported here suggest that acoustic occlusion with RIC instruments is slight and may not always be related to perceived occlusion. Therefore, a client’s perception of “hollow” voice quality, “echoey” sound quality or a plugged sensation may be the most reliable indication of occlusion and the most important determinant of eartip size or venting characteristics. The administration of an occlusion rating scale or other self-evaluation techniques may also prove helpful in evaluating occlusion and its impact on overall hearing aid satisfaction.

References

Dillon, H. (2001). Hearing aids. New York, NY: Thieme.

Goldstein, D.P.,  & Hayes, C.S. (1965). The occlusion effect in bone conduction hearing.  Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 8, 137-148.

Kampe, S.D., & Wynne, M.K. ( 1996). The influence of venting on the occlusion effect. The Hearing Journal 49(4), 59-66.

Kiessling, J., Brenner, B., Jespersen, C.T., Groth, J., & Jensen, O.D. (2005). Occlusion effect of earmolds with different venting systems. Journal of the American Academy of Audiology, 16, 237-249.

Kiessling. J., Margolf-Hackl, S., Geller, S., & Olsen, S.O. (2003). Researchers report on a field test of a non-occluding hearing instrument. The Hearing Journal , 56(9), 36-41.

Kochkin, S. (2000). MarkeTrak V: Why my hearing aids are in the drawer: The consumer’s perspective. The Hearing Journal 53 (2), 34-42.

Kuk, F.K. , Keenan, D., & Lau, C.C. (2005). Vent configurations on subjective and objective occlusion effect. Journal of the American Academy of Audiology 16, 747-762.

Mueller, H.G., & Bright, K.E. (1996). The occlusion effect during probe microphone measurements. Seminars in Hearing 17 (1), 21-32.

Revit, L. (1992). Two techniques for dealing with the occlusion effect. Hearing Instruments 43 (12), 16-18.

Sweetow, R. W. (1991). The truth behind “non-occluding” earmolds. Hearing Instruments 42 (1), 25.

Vasil, K.A., & Cienkowski, K.M. (2006). Subjective and objective measures of the occlusion effect for open-fit hearing aids. Journal of the Academy of Rehabilitative Audiology 39, 69-82.

Vasil-Dilaj, K.A., & Cienkowski, K.M. (2010). The influence of receiver size on magnitude of acoustic and perceived measures of occlusion. American Journal of Audiology 20, 61-68.

Westermann, V.H. (1987). The occlusion effect. Hearing Instruments, 38 (6), 43.