What do Otoacoustic Emissions (OAEs) test for?
OAEs primarily test the function of the hair cells in the inner ear, but results can be impacted by problems at the eardrum or space behind the eardrum. For this reason, OAE results do not specify where a problem occurs in the ear, just if pathology may be present somewhere in the ear. OAEs are commonly used as a screener, and if pathology is suspected, further testing may be required.

How reliable is OAE testing?
OAEs are a reliable estimator of hair cell function. However, measurement of low-level sounds reflected from the inner ear can easily be compromised by environmental sounds in the testing area as well as by noise or movements made by the patient. OAEs additionally cannot detect hearing problems arising due to pathology along the hearing nerve. Nerve-related hearing problems are better identified through an auditory brainstem response (ABR) evaluation.

Who can be tested with OAEs?
OAEs are a suitable screening and diagnostic tool for patients of all ages, as this form of testing is quick, non-invasive, and requires no behavioral response (e.g., hand raising, repeating words or sentences) from the patient.

What does it mean to say OAEs are a screening tool?
Screener OAEs yield less specific information than diagnostic OAEs. Screener OAEs operate on a pass/fail system to judge whether hearing falls within a normal range and can be completed in 10-30 seconds per ear. Diagnostic OAEs may require repeated measurements per ear and yield more specific information about your hearing thresholds. That said, diagnostic OAE testing is a less sensitive estimator of hearing thresholds as compared to a standard behavioral evaluation or ABR evaluation.

For more information, see our pages overviewing hearing testing for adults, hearing testing for children, and ABR testing.