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Otoacoustic Emissions (OAEs) Testing – The Basics

This is a quick, automatic test that checks the function of tiny structures, known as outer hair cells, in the inner ear (cochlea). When stimulated, the outer hair cells vibrate and continue sending the sound signal through inner hair cells and on to the auditory nerve. Those tiny vibrations make a tiny echo that returns to the ear canal. OAE testing is measuring the presence and strength of those echos and vibrations. This gives us great insight into the function of the outer, middle, and inner ear.

How is the test performed?

This test is very quick and painless. It can be done on people of all ages, including newborns! The audiologist will place a small probe into the ear. The patient simply sits quietly and will hear a series of tones. There is no need to respond to this test. The test can be done with the patient awake or even asleep! The probe will detect any measurable responses from the ear, which will then appear on a small computer screen. The audiologist will then interpret those results to determine how well the ear is functioning.

Who needs OAE testing?

Not every visit to the audiologist requires this test, but there are certain cases where it is often utilized.

  • Babies and young children who are unable to respond to traditional hearing tests.
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ear (tinnitus)
  • Any time further information is needed to interpret an audiogram (hearing test).

What do the results mean?

  • When OAEs are present, it is associated with a normally functioning ear system from the ear canal through those outer hair cells.
  • When OAEs are absent or weak, it indicates that at least one part of the ear system is not functioning well. This could be caused by ear wax build up, fluid in the middle ear, significant negative pressure in the middle ear, or sensorineural hearing loss.

Why is OAE testing particularly important for young children?

Obtaining a detailed hearing test on a baby or toddler can be challenging. Behavioral hearing testing (responding to speech sounds or beeps in a sound booth) for these young children typically tests both ears at the same time and does not provide ear specific information. Sometimes, small children might be shy and not respond well to behavioral testing, so we need objective measurements to fill in the missing information. Ear specific information is also essential in detecting unilateral hearing loss.

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