Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? It’s not a fun experience. Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. Then you likely open 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. Maybe 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 professionals check out things that you get a picture of the issue. Just because the car isn’t moving, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because automobiles are complex and computerized machines.
The same thing can happen in some cases with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically indicate what the cause is. There’s the common 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 like a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This kind of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
But in some cases, this type of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less common, can in some cases be the cause. This is a hearing disorder where your ear and inner ear receive sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can often look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like cranking the volume up on your devices and not being able to hear well in loud environments. This can frequently make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and manage.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some distinctive 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 an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like someone is playing with the volume knob in your head! If you’re encountering these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t make sense of them. This can pertain to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what somebody is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound garbled or distorted.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
The root causes of this condition can, in part, be explained by its symptoms. On a personal level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy might not be completely clear. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in full form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a particular way.
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain doesn’t get the full signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will seem off. Sounds might seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is really certain why. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. Still, there are close connections which may show that you’re at a higher risk of developing this condition.
Keep 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 develop auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Risk factors for children
Factors that can increase the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- Other neurological disorders
- A low birth weight
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- Preterm or premature birth
Risk factors for adults
Here are a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Various kinds of immune disorders
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
Limiting the risks as much as possible is generally a smart plan. If risk factors are present, it might be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a normal hearing test, you’ll likely be given a pair of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
One of the following two tests will usually be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be tested with this diagnostic. We will put a small microphone 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. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the problem.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be connected to specific spots on your scalp and head with this test. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with particular 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 (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we run the appropriate tests.
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 have 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 milder cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to enable you to hear better. For some people, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! Having said that, this is not typically the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the problem. As a result, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problems. It might be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these cases. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has plenty of videos of people having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or reducing specific frequencies. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what happens. This strategy often utilizes devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments might be combined with communication skills training. 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 condition, prompt treatment can produce better results.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as quickly as possible. The sooner you make an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your everyday life! Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.