St. Paul hearing clinic offers new rotary chair technology to aid balance issues

Walking with a cane for the last five years, but dealing with balance issues since he was a kid, Steve Guthrie jumped at the chance to test out a new rotary chair.

The chair was put into place at Associated Hearing Care's hearing and balance clinic in St. Paul at the start of the year. The technology of this type of chair that spins while performing balance, hearing and various tests is not new at all, but the fact that more patients are getting the chance to sit in one of these is.

"Clearly, it’s becoming more common to have in a private practice versus just the medical hospital setting. I don’t know of many in the Twin Cities," said Dr. Rachel Allgor, president of the Minnesota Academy of Audiology. 

Allgor points out there are more studies, research and awareness as of late about the potential connections between hearing aids and fall prevention.

"Do hearing aids help with balance? There is no concrete answer, a lot of it is theory," said Dr. Samantha Kohnen, audiologist at Associate Hearing Care.  "Your vision, your somatosensory, touch, how the earth feels below your feet, cognition, vestibular system, all kind of play a part in making sure you are standing upright, and able to walk independently. When one of those systems isn’t working as strong as it used to, you can start to have trouble with balance and also with dizziness."

So, when someone like Guthrie does have a fall, or one of many other health challenges, a test like this can help answer questions more quickly.

"Insurance doesn’t often cover unlimited physical therapy sessions," says Dr. Kohnen. "So it speeds up the process, so they really get all the benefit they can from those sessions."

For a lot of people, the connection between balance and hearing makes sense, but one of the biggest misconceptions the audiology community, and the World Health Organization continues to battle, is the thought that hearing loss is simply a part of getting old. 

These days there are more contributing factors for younger generations, including video games. While headphones, earbuds and music venues have been recognized as sources of potentially unsafe sound levels, researchers say relatively little attention has been paid to the effects of gaming and e-sports on hearing loss.  

Dr. Allgor recommends this rule of thumb for all: "60% of the volume, you are in the clear, listen to it all day long. 60% or more, keep it under 60 minutes a day so that can help save a lot of people from dealing with noise-induced hearing loss."

Because the ripple effects of hearing loss go in many different directions.

"There’s a lot of different diseases that correlate with hearing loss, heart disease, diabetes, liver and kidney diseases especially, all have hearing implications And hearing implications go on to other things. And cognitive decline, and all of that is much higher in an individual that has hearing loss," said Dr. Allgor.

"Some people say you have diabetes, you might have neuropathy in your feet. Well, then, your proprioception is off, and then you are really relying on your vision and your vestibular. If you take out another one of those things, it's going to make everything a little more challenging," said Dr. Katie Awoyinka, chair for the Audiology Awareness Committee.

So, while the seat at Associated Hearing Care's hearing and balance clinic is nothing like a video game, for Guthrie looking for answers about this health, it’s better.

"If you can find out anything that is going on with you and why, it makes all the difference in the world," says Guthrie.