Latest Technology To Help Patients Improve Hearing, Breathing

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Dr. Michael Stone performs a balloon sinus dilation in his office

Shelia Eisenberg admits that her hearing loss was driving everyone around her crazy.

“I had tried hearing aids, but I just couldn’t get those darn things into my very narrow ear canals,” she said. “My kids were really getting aggravated with me and my husband finally forced me — and I do mean force — to try again. When I went to the doctor I was furious and said, ‘Why am I doing this? This is ridiculous!’”

Eisenberg, 77, now finds her stubbornness ridiculous. She hadn’t realized how far the technology had come in hearing aids and was thrilled to learn of the Receiver-in-the-Ear option. Also called Over-the-Ear, it’s so tiny that it’s hard to see — even when you’re looking for it.

“My friends keep looking at me, saying, ‘Where are they?’” Eisenberg laughed.

Restored hearing means the West Bloomfield resident can once again fully participate in life.

“It reopened my world,” she said. “I don’t feel isolated. I am right in the middle of things, and I can keep up and participate.”

That’s music to the ears of her physician, Jeffrey Weingarten, M.D. “A lot of people underestimate the power of hearing loss,” he said. “It can be a social or a professional disability.”

When dealing with patients who fear hearing aids will make them look old, Weingarten’s colleagues at Ear, Nose & Throat Consultants in Southfield like to call him in for something of a parlor trick. He’ll pretend he’s not wearing his hearing aids, but then pull them out of his ears to illustrate just how virtually invisible they are.

Dr. Jeffrey Weingarten

The benefits, Weingarten said, go far beyond cosmetic. Hearing loss is the third most common health problem in the United States, after arthritis and cardiac issues. Some 45 million Americans have treatable hearing loss, including one in three people over age 60.

While a sudden change in vision sends most people running to the doctor, many don’t treat their hearing loss with the same sense of urgency. In fact, Weingarten said, many wait seven to 10 years before seeking help.

“What are you missing by not being able to hear? The answer is, a lot. I’d much rather participate in society with a hearing aid than to isolate myself from friends and family,” he said. “How important is hearing the shofar on Yom Kippur? That lets you know the value of hearing.”

(Incidentally, check out Weingarten blowing the shofar for 1 minute, 12 seconds — perhaps the longest single breath ever recorded — on Yom Kippur 2010 at youtube.com/watch. He and his wife, Janet, founded the Grosse Pointe Jewish Council in 1988.)

Hearing loss has been associated with depression, paranoia, behavior changes and the worsening of dementia. To diagnose it, the patient sits in a tiny booth (reminiscent of an old-time recording studio) and undergoes a hearing test by responding to prompts heard through headphones. The results are shown in an audiogram that charts the way each ear responds to specific sounds.

“Hearing loss is actually a medical disorder,” Weingarten said, noting that an otolaryngologist has medical school and five years of ear-nose-throat training.

Hearing aids can be purchased from any number of sources. “You can go to a box store and get a discounted hearing aid, but they are not telling you what caused your hearing loss,” Weingarten said. “We don’t sell hearing aids; we dispense them.”

And, he said, you get what you pay for. Hearing aids are often not covered by insurance and good ones run from $3,000 to $6,000 a pair. (Some people wear just one but, Weingarten said, “that’s like wearing a monocle. They usually come back and want the second one.”)

Besides the over-the-ear style he and Eisenberg favor, there are many other models. Some sit behind the ear, some are inserted deep into the ear canal, and some are more visible but have the advantages of longer-lasting batteries and being easier to handle. The technology shows no sign of slowing down, Weingarten said.

“In six to 10 years, it will be all about biometrics — the hearing aid will take your pulse, check your oxygen level, heart rate and glucose level and send all that information to your phone,” he said.

Eisenberg remains grateful that her husband, Burt, kept pushing her to seek help for her hearing loss. He passed away shortly after she got her new hearing aids six years ago.

“It’s like a godsend,” she said. “It has really enhanced my life.”

Open Sesame

Jack Grushko

Where Eisenberg’s poor hearing was making those around her nuts, the ringing in Jack Grushko’s ears was driving him to distraction.

“I have had sinus issues on and off because of allergies over the last 10 years, and it’s tinnitus,” said the Bloomfield Hills resident, 61. “It was progressively getting worse and I tried a number of things.”

To relieve the pressure, Michael Stone, M.D., also of Ear, Nose & Throat Consultants, suggested a relatively new procedure called a balloon sinus dilation. The surgery very gently opens nasal passages — a far cry from what Stone called the traditional “rotor-rooter” procedure that requires general anesthesia.

The patient is given a local anesthesia (not unlike a dentist visit) and then the physician inserts a balloon into each sinus pathway. As it is gently inflated, it expands the opening to restore drainage. After five seconds, the balloon is deflated and removed and the procedure is repeated on the next pathway.

“It only takes 20 to 30 minutes for the procedure, and it’s a much shorter recovery period,” said Stone. “There’s also less need for narcotic pain medications.”

Grushko felt better after just a few days. “It was sort of the same as when I had Lasix — an immediate result and then progressively even better,” he said. “It took about three months to feel the full effect of the reduced volume of the tinnitus, but now I am 70 to 80 percent better, and I am happy.”

Long-term studies show the same outcomes as traditional sinus surgery, Stone said, at a much lower cost. “This is less expensive for the patient — and for healthcare in general,” he said.

The procedure resulted in another big plus for Grushko, whose constant congestion meant taking lots of Sudafed. “Now I don’t have to take much of anything anymore,” he said. “This has eliminated a lot of drug taking.”

Sinusitis symptoms typically include constant facial pain and pressure, headaches, a stuffy nose, thick, yellow-green nasal discharge, low fever, bad breath and pain in the teeth for 10 days or longer.

“Traditionally, patients with chronic sinusitis have 4.5 infections per year that require antibiotics,” said Stone, who is a member at Temple Beth El, part of the Forman Campaign Leadership Program through the Jewish Federation and active in Send a Kid to Tamarack.

“Z-Paks are given away like candy at many urgent care offices. Balloon sinus dilation reduces the need for antibiotics and the risk of developing a resistance to them.”

Joyce Wiswell Special to the Jewish News

Breathe Deep
To keep your sinus passages free and clear, Michael Stone, M.D., recommends daily irrigation with a neti pot. There’s no need to buy special potions at the drug store, he said. All that’s needed is 1 cup of lukewarm water (tap is fine), and half a teaspoon each of kosher salt and baking soda.

Put half the mixture in a neti pot or bulb syringe, aim at the back of the nostril and lightly squeeze. Refill the syringe and repeat on the other side.

“You can do it once or twice a day,” Stone said, “especially if you feel like you’re getting sick, have been around a lot of sick people or after a plane trip.”

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