Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? That really stinks! You have to pull your car safely to the side of the road. Then you likely pop your hood and take a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s strange is that you do this even though you have no idea how engines work. Maybe you think there’ll be a convenient knob you can turn or something. Ultimately, you have to call someone to tow your car to a mechanic.
And a picture of the problem only becomes apparent when experts get a look at it. That’s because cars are complex, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t move) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur in some cases with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always apparent by the symptoms. There’s the normal culprit (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most individuals think of really loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This kind of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s a bit more involved than basic noise damage.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be the result of something else besides noise damage. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less common, can in some cases be the cause. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be effectively sent to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound just fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear well in loud settings, you keep turning 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 a few unique properties that make it possible to diagnose. When hearing loss symptoms manifest in this way, you can be pretty sure that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. Though, naturally, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are some of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can pertain to all sorts of sounds, not just speech.
- An inability to make out words: Sometimes, you can’t make out what someone is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like someone is messing with the volume knob. This could be a sign that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
The underlying causes of this condition can, in part, be explained by its symptoms. It might not be very clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. This disorder can develop in both adults and children. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will sound unclear if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds may seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really certain why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. Still, there are close connections which may reveal that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this condition.
It should be noted that these risk factors are not guarantees, you may have every single one of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to experience auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Risk factors for children
Factors that can increase the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Liver disorders that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Other neurological disorders
- A low birth weight
- 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:
- Various types of immune diseases
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
Minimizing the risks as much as you can is generally a smart plan. If risk factors are there, it may be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
A normal hearing exam involves listening to tones with a set of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
Instead, we will generally recommend one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. A little microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of clicks and tones will be played. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it reacts. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the problem.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During the course of this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized electrodes attached to specific places on your head and scalp. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. Whether you’re dealing with sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be established by the quality of your brainwaves.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we do the appropriate tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be treated in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some moderate cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even with auditory neuropathy. For some people, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t typically the situation. Due to this, hearing aids are often coupled with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids will not be able to get around the issues. It may be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these cases. Signals from your inner ear are conveyed directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has plenty of videos of people having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or diminution of specific frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. This strategy often uses devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if needed. This will allow you to work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as you can
As with any hearing disorder, prompt treatment can produce better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just regular old hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life after you schedule an appointment and get treated. This can be especially critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.