Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the road? That really stinks! You have to pull your car off the road. Then you probably pop your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s funny is that you do this even though you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Ultimately, a tow truck will have to be called.
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) are not enough to tell you what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily reveal what the underlying cause is. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the usual cause. But sometimes, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most individuals think of extremely loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This type of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complicated 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 common, can in some cases be the cause. This is a hearing condition in which your ear and inner ear collect sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms associated with auditory neuropathy are, at first look, not all that distinct from those symptoms linked to traditional hearing loss. Things like turning the volume up on your devices and not being capable of hearing very well in loud environments. This can frequently make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and manage.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some unique symptoms that make determining it easier. These presentations are rather solid indicators that you aren’t dealing with sensorineural hearing loss, but with auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, 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: In some cases, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t distinguish what’s being said. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like someone is playing with the volume knob in your head! This could be a sign that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is just fine, the issue is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can go beyond the speech and pertain to all types of sounds around you.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the root causes behind this specific condition. On an individual level, the reasons why you may experience auditory neuropathy might not be totally clear. Both children and adults can develop this disorder. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain can’t get the full signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will seem wrong. When this occurs, you may interpret sounds as garbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to discern.
- The cilia that deliver signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been damaged in a particular way.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is quite sure why some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. As a result, there isn’t a tried and true way to prevent auditory neuropathy. Nevertheless, there are close connections which might show that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this disorder.
It should be noted that these risk factors are not guarantees, you could have every single one of these risk factors and still not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of experiencing this disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Factors that can increase the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- A low birth weight
- Preterm or premature birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Liver disorders that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Other neurological conditions
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Various kinds of immune diseases
- Certain medications (especially incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing conditions that run in the family
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
Generally, it’s a smart idea to limit these risks as much as you can. If risk factors are there, it may be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A normal hearing test involves listening to tones with a pair 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 recommend one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. A tiny microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of clicks and tones will be played. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it responds. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will reveal it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific 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 specific attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us determine 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 successfully diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you take your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this disorder can be managed in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some less severe cases, hearing aids will be able to provide the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even with auditory neuropathy. For some people, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! Having said that, this is not usually the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the issue. Due to this, hearing aids are usually coupled with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids will not be able to get around the problems. In these instances, a cochlear implant may be needed. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. They’re quite amazing! (And you can find all kinds of 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 known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what occurs. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training 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.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
Getting your disorder treated right away will, as with any hearing disorder, lead to better outcomes.
So it’s important to get your hearing loss treated right away whether it’s the ordinary form or auditory neuropathy. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you make 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.