Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? It’s not a fun experience. You have to pull your car safely to the side of the road. And then, for some reason, you probably open your hood and take a look at your engine.
Humorously, you still do this despite the fact that you have no understanding of engines. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be obvious. Eventually, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And it’s only when the experts check out things that you get a picture of the problem. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) aren’t enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur sometimes with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically identify what the cause is. There’s the common culprit (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most people think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
But sometimes, this type of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less common, can sometimes be the cause. This is a hearing disorder where your ear and inner ear collect sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully convey those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms associated with auditory neuropathy are, at first glance, not all that distinct from those symptoms associated with traditional hearing loss. You can’t hear well in loud situations, you keep cranking up the volume on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique properties that make it possible to identify. When hearing loss symptoms manifest like this, you can be fairly sure that it’s not typical noise related hearing loss. Though, as always, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Trouble understanding speech: In some cases, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and unclear.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like somebody is playing with the volume knob. If you’re experiencing these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t make sense of them. This can pertain to all kinds of sounds, not just spoken words.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this particular condition. It might not be very clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, generally speaking:
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing center 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 seem off. Sounds may seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: If these fragile hairs in your inner ear become compromised in a particular way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its full form.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is really sure why. As a result, there isn’t a tried and true way to prevent auditory neuropathy. But you may be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you show particular close associations.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still may or may not experience auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to experience auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Children’s risk factors
Here are some risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Liver disorders that cause jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- A low birth weight
- Other neurological disorders
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Preterm or premature birth
Risk factors for adults
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Certain infectious diseases, like mumps
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Immune diseases of various types
In general, it’s a smart idea to limit these risks as much as you can. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart plan, especially if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
During a normal hearing assessment, you’ll most likely be given a set of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
One of the following two tests will normally be done instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. A tiny microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of clicks and tones. The diagnostic device will then evaluate how well your inner ear reacts to those tones and clicks. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to certain spots on your head and scalp. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes place particular focus on measuring how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us determine whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we run the applicable tests.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment in the same way that you take your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But there are a few ways to manage this condition.
- Hearing aids: In some milder cases, hearing aids will be able to provide the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. For some people, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t typically the case. Hearing aids are often used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the issue for most people. It might be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these instances. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has lots of videos of people having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering specific frequencies. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s precisely what happens. This strategy often makes use of devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be put together 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.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as you can
As with any hearing disorder, prompt treatment can lead to better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as quickly as possible. The sooner you make an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your everyday life! Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.