Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the road? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled to the side of the road. Then you probably pop your hood and take a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s funny is that you do this even though you have no clue how engines work. Maybe whatever is wrong will be obvious. Ultimately, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a mechanic.
And a picture of the problem only becomes apparent when experts diagnose it. That’s because cars are intricate, 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 happen in some cases with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always evident by the symptoms. There’s the normal cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
What is auditory neuropathy?
When most people think about hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your hearing. This type of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complex than that, but you get the point.
But sometimes, this type of long-term, noise related damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can sometimes be the cause. This is a hearing condition where your ear and inner ear collect sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can often look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear very well in loud situations, you keep cranking up the volume on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and treat.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have a few unique properties that make it possible to diagnose. These presentations are pretty strong indicators that you aren’t experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, naturally, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sounds sound 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 apply to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
- An inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t distinguish what’s being said. Words are unclear and muddled sounding.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like somebody is playing with the volume knob. If you’re encountering these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this particular condition. On an individual level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy may not be entirely clear. Both adults and children can experience this disorder. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain doesn’t receive the complete signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will sound wrong. Sounds may seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some people will develop auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is quite certain why. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. But you may be at a higher risk of experiencing auditory neuropathy if you present specific close associations.
It should be noted that these risk factors are not guarantees, you could have all of these risk factors and still 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 raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Other neurological conditions
- Liver disorders that result in jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- 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 a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Various types of immune disorders
- Certain infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
Minimizing the risks as much as you can is generally a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good plan, particularly if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A typical hearing exam involves listening to tones with a set of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
Rather, we will typically suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be fastened to certain places on your scalp and head with this test. 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.
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be evaluated with this diagnostic. We will put a little microphone 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 responds. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
Once we run the appropriate tests, we will be able to more successfully 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 get it fixed. In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be managed in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some moderate cases, hearing aids will be able to provide the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be a sufficient option for some individuals. Having said that, this isn’t generally the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the problem. Hearing aids are often used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids will not be able to get around the issues. It may be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these situations. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of people having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or reduction of certain frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this approach.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be put together with any combination of these treatments if needed. This will allow you to work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
As with any hearing disorder, timely treatment can result in better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as quickly as you can. You’ll be able to go back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you schedule an appointment and get treated. Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.