Have you ever had your car break down in the middle of the highway? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled to the side of the road. Then you probably open your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s funny is that you do this even if you have no clue how engines work. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Sooner or later, you have to call someone to tow your car to a garage.
And it’s only when the professionals get a look at things that you get an understanding of the issue. That’s because cars are complex, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t move) aren’t enough to tell you what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur at times with hearing loss. The cause is not always evident by the symptoms. There’s the normal culprit (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most individuals think about hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your ability to hear. This kind of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s a bit more involved than basic noise damage.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something other than noise damage. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be effectively carried to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound just fine.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first glimpse, not all that distinct from those symptoms associated with conventional hearing loss. You can’t hear well in loud situations, you keep turning up the volume on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can frequently make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and manage.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some distinctive symptoms that make spotting it easier. These presentations are rather solid indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Again, this is not an issue with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is just fine, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t make sense of them. This can go beyond the speech and apply to all types of sounds around you.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t make out what a person is saying even though the volume is normal. Words are unclear and unclear.
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like someone is messing with the volume knob in your head! This could be a sign that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the root causes behind this particular disorder. It might not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both children and adults can develop this disorder. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain doesn’t receive the complete signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will sound off. When this occurs, you may interpret sounds as jumbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to differentiate.
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a specific way.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is quite sure why. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to preventing it. Still, there are close connections which might reveal that you’re at a higher risk of developing this disorder.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of experiencing this condition.
Risk factors for children
Here are a few risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- A low birth weight
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Other neurological conditions
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Liver disorders that cause jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Specific infectious diseases, like mumps
- Immune diseases of various types
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Some medications (especially improper use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
Minimizing the risks as much as possible is always a smart plan. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart plan, especially if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a standard hearing assessment, you’ll likely be given a pair of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help very much with auditory neuropathy.
One of the following two tests will normally be done instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. We will put a little microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of tones and clicks. The diagnostic device will then evaluate how well your inner ear responds to those tones and clicks. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be connected to specific places on your scalp and head with this test. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us identify whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more successfully diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So, just like you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But there are several ways to treat this condition.
- Hearing aids: In some moderate cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be a sufficient option for some people. But because volume isn’t usually the problem, this isn’t usually the case. Due to this, hearing aids are frequently combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids will not be able to solve the issues. In these cases, a cochlear implant could be needed. Signals from your inner ear are transmitted directly to your brain with this implant. They’re pretty amazing! (And you can watch many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering certain frequencies. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. This approach often makes use of devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be combined with any combination of these treatments if needed. This will help you communicate with the hearing you have and work around your symptoms instead of treating them.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
As with any hearing condition, prompt treatment can result in better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just regular old hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as soon as you can. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your daily life! This can be especially critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.