Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the road? It’s not a fun experience. Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. And then, for whatever reason, you probably open your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s strange is that you do this even if you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps you think there’ll be a handy knob you can turn or something. Inevitably, a tow truck will have to be called.
And it’s only when the experts check out things that you get an understanding of the problem. That’s because cars are complicated, 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.
With hearing loss, this same sort of thing can occur. The cause isn’t always evident by the symptoms. There’s the normal culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, it’s something else, something such as auditory neuropathy.
What is auditory neuropathy?
When most people consider hearing loss, they think of loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your ability to hear. This kind of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complex than that, but you get the idea.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something other than noise damage. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. When sound can’t, for some reason, be correctly carried to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound perfectly fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear well in noisy situations, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to diagnose. When hearing loss symptoms manifest in this way, you can be fairly sure that it’s not normal noise related hearing loss. Obviously, nothing can replace getting a real-time diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t make out what a person is saying even though the volume is just fine. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like someone is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! This could be a sign that you’re experiencing auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Again, this isn’t a problem with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is just fine, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can pertain to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific disorder. It may not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both adults and children can develop this disorder. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain can’t receive the full signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will seem off. When this occurs, you may interpret sounds as garbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to differentiate.
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be compromised: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been damaged in a particular way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is quite certain why some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others might not. Because of this, there isn’t a tried and true way to prevent auditory neuropathy. But you might be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you show certain close associations.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not experience auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical probability of experiencing this condition.
Children’s risk factors
Here are a few risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological disorders
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- Preterm or premature birth
- A low birth weight
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing conditions that run in the family
- Some medications (especially improper use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
- Immune diseases of various types
Limiting the risks as much as you can is always a smart plan. If risk factors are present, it might be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
During a typical 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 typically be used 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 small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of tones and clicks. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it reacts. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be fastened to specific spots on your scalp and head with this test. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with specific attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us determine whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment in the same way that you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this disorder can be treated in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even with auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to allow you to hear better. For some individuals, hearing aids will work just fine! But because volume usually isn’t the problem, this isn’t typically the situation. Hearing aids are often used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids will not be able to solve the issues. In these cases, a cochlear implant could be needed. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and carries them directly to your brain. The internet has plenty of videos of individuals having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or reduction of certain frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what happens. This approach frequently utilizes devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if necessary. 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 possible
Getting your condition treated right away will, as with any hearing condition, produce better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as quickly as you can. You’ll be able to go back to hearing better and enjoying your life after you make an appointment and get treated. Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.