Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled to the side of the road. And then, for some reason, you probably open your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s funny is that you do this even though you have no clue how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be totally 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 get a look at it. Just because the car is not moving, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because vehicles are complex and computerized machines.
The same thing can occur sometimes with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always apparent by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the typical culprit. But in some cases, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
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, called sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the point.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something else besides noise damage. While it’s less common, hearing loss can in some cases be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for some reason, be correctly transmitted to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound perfectly fine.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms associated with auditory neuropathy are, at first glance, not all that distinct from those symptoms associated with conventional hearing loss. You can’t hear 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.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some distinctive symptoms that make identifying it easier. These presentations are pretty strong indicators that you aren’t experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, nothing can replace getting a real-time diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like someone is messing with the volume knob. This could be an indication that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Once again, this is 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 make sense of them. This can pertain to all sorts of sounds, not just speech.
- The inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, you can’t understand what a person is saying even though the volume is normal. Words are confused and unclear.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific disorder. It may not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be compromised: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in full form once these little fragile hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will seem unclear if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds might seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is quite certain why. As a result, there isn’t a tried and true way to counter auditory neuropathy. But you might be at a higher risk of experiencing auditory neuropathy if you present certain close connections.
It should be noted that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you may have all of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical probability of developing this disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Here are a few risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- A low birth weight
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological conditions
Risk factors for adults
Here are a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Specific infectious diseases, like mumps
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
- Some medications (especially improper use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- Immune diseases of various kinds
Limiting the risks as much as possible is always a smart plan. If risk factors are there, it might be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a standard hearing examination, you’ll likely be given a set of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help very much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will usually 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 little microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of clicks and tones. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it reacts. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will reveal it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During the course of this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to certain spots on your scalp and head. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with specific attention to how those brainwaves respond 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.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be managed in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some less severe 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 just fine! That said, this isn’t usually the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the problem. Due to this, hearing aids are often coupled with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids won’t be able to get around the issues. It may be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these situations. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. They’re quite amazing! (And you can find many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by increasing or lowering certain frequencies. That’s what occurs with a technology known as frequency modulation. This strategy frequently makes use of devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments could be combined with communication skills exercises. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as you can
Getting your condition treated right away will, as with any hearing disorder, lead to better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you schedule an appointment and get treated. Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.