Why can I hear but not clearly understand what people are saying?

When we talk about hearing, we need to break it down into two parts. The first is audibility, or loudness. It means I can hear the sound. The second is clarity, which means I can understand the words that were said.

Common ways patients describe this problem are:

  • “I hear but I don’t understand.”
  • “It seems like everyone is mumbling.”
  • “I hear all the noise but cannot understand the words.”

In most cases like these, the patient has pretty strong hearing in the low pitch area. That is the part of hearing that relates to audibility. So they don’t have a loudness problem. Their hearing, however, is getting weak in the middle and high frequencies. This is where the clarity is for speech. So the words are not clear even though they can technically be heard.

This is such a common problem that it has a name. It is called a Sound Void®. Sound Voids are moments lacking in clarity or times when we hear only parts of the words or hear the wrong words. Here is an example of Sound Voids in action:

  • Three men go out for a walk. The first says, “It’s windy today.”
  • The second one says, “It’s not Wednesday, it’s Thursday.”
  • The third says “I’m thirsty too. Let’s go get a soda.”

The most difficult sounds to hear when your ears are getting weak in the middle and high pitches are s, sh, t, th, p, ph, f, and h. When these sounds are missing, you have difficulty differentiating between words. Oftentimes, there are only one or two sounds in a sentence that carry most of the meaning. When you lose those key sounds, the meaning can really get lost, and the conversation gets ruined.

What can you do if you have this problem? You should start with a complete diagnostic hearing test. If you have Medicare or an HMO insurance, your physician will need to order the test. If you have PPO insurance, you can call your local audiologist directly to get the testing done. This will make sure you do not have any underlying medical conditions relative to your hearing. Once these have been ruled out, you can then try some hearing aids to see how much they will help you. Today’s hearing aids are designed to provide maximum clarity with minimum loudness, so they are perfect for most patients.