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. 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 you think there’ll be a convenient knob you can turn or something. Sooner or later, you have to call someone to tow your car to a mechanic.
And a picture of the issue only becomes obvious when mechanics diagnose it. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t start) aren’t enough to tell you what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same sort of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily reveal what the cause is. There’s the normal cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, it’s something else, something such as auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most people consider hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your hearing. This form of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complex than that, but you get the point.
But sometimes, this type of long-term, noise induced damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less common, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. This is a hearing condition where your ear and inner ear receive sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit 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 associated with conventional hearing loss. You can’t hear well in noisy situations, you keep turning up the volume on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and treat.
However, 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. Though, as always, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are some of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- An inability to make out words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t distinguish what’s being said. Words are unclear and unclear.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like someone is messing with the volume knob. If you’re dealing with these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Once again, this isn’t an issue with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is completely normal, the issue is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can pertain to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
The underlying causes of this condition can, in part, be defined by its symptoms. It might not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both adults and children can experience this disorder. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing portion of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will sound unclear if there is damage to this nerve. When this takes place, you might interpret sounds as jumbled, unclear, or too quiet to discern.
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be compromised: If these tiny hairs in your inner ear become compromised in a particular way, the sound your ear senses can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its full form.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is really sure why. Because of this, there isn’t a definitive way to prevent auditory neuropathy. However, there are close connections which might 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 the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical probability of developing this condition.
Risk factors for children
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- Liver conditions that lead to 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)
- Other neurological disorders
- Preterm or premature birth
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
Adult risk factors
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Specific infectious diseases, like mumps
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Various types of immune disorders
- Auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
Generally, it’s a smart plan to minimize these risks as much as possible. If risk factors are there, it may be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
During a typical hearing assessment, you’ll likely be given a pair of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help very much with auditory neuropathy.
Rather, we will generally suggest one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. We will put a little microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of tones and clicks. The diagnostic device will then evaluate how well your inner ear reacts to those tones and clicks. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the problem.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During the course of this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized electrodes attached to certain spots on your head and scalp. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes put particular emphasis on measuring how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. Whether you’re experiencing sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be determined 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.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, just like you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be managed in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even with auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to enable you to hear better. For some individuals, hearing aids will work just fine! But because volume usually isn’t the problem, this isn’t normally the case. Due to this, hearing aids are often coupled with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problem for most individuals. 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. They’re quite amazing! (And you can watch many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or diminution of certain frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what occurs. This approach often makes use of devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments may be combined with communication skills exercises. This will help you communicate with the hearing you have and work around your symptoms instead of treating them.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as you can
Getting your condition treated promptly 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 important to get treatment as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to go back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you make an appointment and get treated. This can be especially crucial for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.