Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the highway? That really stinks! You have to pull your car off the road. Then you likely pop 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 idea how engines work. Maybe you think there’ll be a handy handle you can turn or something. Ultimately, a tow truck will need to be called.
And it’s only when the mechanics get a look at things that you get an understanding of the problem. That’s because cars are complicated, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (your 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 symptom itself doesn’t necessarily identify what the underlying cause is. There’s the normal cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most people think of extremely loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
But in some cases, this kind of long-term, noise induced damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less common, can sometimes be the cause. This is a hearing condition in which your ear and inner ear collect sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can often look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like turning the volume up on your devices and not being able to hear well in loud environments. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and manage.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to diagnose. When hearing loss symptoms present like this, you can be fairly sure that it’s not normal noise related hearing loss. Though, naturally, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like someone is messing with the volume knob in your head! If you’re dealing with these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- An inability to make out words: Sometimes, you can’t make out what somebody is saying even though the volume is normal. Words are unclear and muddled sounding.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is completely normal, the issue is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can go beyond the spoken word and apply to all types of sounds around you.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific condition. It may not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. Both adults and children can develop this disorder. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing center of your brain gets sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain can’t receive the full signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will sound off. When this happens, you may interpret sounds as garbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to discern.
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in full form once these little fragile 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’s no exact science to preventing it. But you might be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you present certain close associations.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still may or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to experience auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Risk factors for children
Here are a few risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- A low birth weight
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Liver conditions that cause jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological disorders
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
- Some medications (specifically improper use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
- Immune disorders of various kinds
Minimizing the risks as much as possible is always a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart idea, particularly if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A normal hearing exam involves listening to tones with a pair of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very limited use.
Instead, we will usually suggest one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be evaluated with this diagnostic. A tiny microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then a series of clicks and tones will be played. The diagnostic device will then determine how well your inner ear responds to those tones and clicks. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will reveal it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to certain spots 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 specific attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us identify whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment in the same way that you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But there are several ways to manage this disorder.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to enable you to hear better. Hearing aids will be an adequate option for some individuals. That said, this is not generally the case, because, again, volume is almost never the problem. As a result, hearing aids are often coupled with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problem for most people. It may be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these situations. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. They’re quite amazing! (And you can find many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by increasing or reducing certain frequencies. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s exactly what occurs. This approach often utilizes devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments could be combined with communication skills training. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
As with any hearing condition, prompt treatment can result in better outcomes.
So it’s essential to get your hearing loss treated right away whether it’s the common form or auditory neuropathy. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life after you make an appointment and get treated. This can be extremely crucial for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.