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 most likely open your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
Humorously, you still do this despite the fact that you have no understanding of engines. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Eventually, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And it’s only when the experts check out things that you get a picture of the issue. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t start) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same sort of thing can happen. The cause is not always obvious by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the typical culprit. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most individuals think of really loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This type of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
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. This is a hearing disorder where your ear and inner ear receive sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer those sounds to your brain.
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 very well in noisy situations, you keep turning up the volume on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and manage.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to diagnose. These presentations are rather strong indicators that you aren’t experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Again, this is not an issue with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is just fine, the problem 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.
- 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 experiencing auditory neuropathy.
- Difficulty understanding speech: In some cases, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t distinguish what’s being said. Words are unclear and unclear.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the root causes behind this particular 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, generally speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- The cilia that deliver signals to the brain can be compromised: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in full form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a particular way.
- Damage to the nerves: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will sound confused if there is damage to this nerve. When this takes place, you may interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to differentiate.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really sure why some people will develop auditory neuropathy while others may not. Because of this, there isn’t a definitive way to prevent auditory neuropathy. But you may be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you show specific close connections.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still may or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of developing this condition.
Risk factors for children
Here are some risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological disorders
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- A low birth weight
- Liver conditions that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
Adult risk factors
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Various kinds of immune diseases
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
Limiting the risks as much as possible is generally a smart plan. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart plan, especially if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a standard hearing test, you’ll most likely be given a pair of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very limited use.
One of the following two tests will typically be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be tested with this diagnostic. We will put a little microphone just inside your ear canal. Then a series of tones and clicks will be played. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it reacts. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the problem.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific spots on your head and scalp with this test. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with specific attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. Whether you’re experiencing sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be established by the quality of your brainwaves.
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 have it fixed. In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be treated in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to allow you to hear better. For some individuals, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! That said, this isn’t usually the case, because, again, volume is virtually never the problem. Hearing aids are often used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the problem for most people. In these cases, a cochlear implant may be necessary. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. They’re pretty 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 boosting or lowering specific frequencies. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. This approach often uses devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises 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
Getting your disorder treated right away will, as with any hearing condition, produce better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as soon as you can. You’ll be able to go back to hearing better and enjoying your life after 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.