Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? That really stinks! You have to pull your car safely to the side of the road. And then, for whatever reason, you probably open your hood and take a look at your engine.
Humorously, you still do this even though you have no knowledge of engines. Maybe you think there’ll be a convenient knob you can turn or something. Ultimately, a tow truck will need to be called.
And it’s only when the mechanics get a look at things that you get a picture of the issue. Just because the car isn’t starting, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because automobiles are complex and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same sort of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically reveal what the underlying cause is. There’s the common cause (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most people think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This form of hearing loss, known as 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. While it’s less common, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. This is a hearing disorder in which your ear and inner ear receive sounds just 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 glimpse, not all that distinct from those symptoms associated with traditional hearing loss. You can’t hear very well in noisy settings, 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 manage.
However, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to diagnose. These presentations are rather strong indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, as always, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- The inability to make out words: Sometimes, you can’t make out what somebody is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like someone is playing with the volume knob. If you’re encountering these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Once again, this is not a problem 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 apply to all kinds of sounds, not just spoken words.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
The root causes of this disorder can, in part, be explained by the symptoms. It might not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. Both adults and children can develop this disorder. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, generally speaking:
- The cilia that deliver signals to the brain can be damaged: If these little hairs inside of your inner ear become damaged in a specific way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be passed on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing portion of your brain gets 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. Sounds might seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is quite certain why some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others may not. Because of this, there isn’t a tried and true way to prevent auditory neuropathy. However, there are close connections which may show that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this condition.
It should be noted that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you could have every single one of these risk factors and still not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to develop auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Children’s risk factors
Factors that can increase the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A low birth weight
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological disorders
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Liver conditions that cause jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- Some medications (specifically incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- Various types of immune diseases
Generally, it’s a good idea to limit these risks as much as you can. If risk factors are present, it may be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A normal hearing exam consists of listening to tones with a pair of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very limited use.
Rather, we will typically recommend one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be fastened to specific spots on your head and scalp with this test. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes put particular focus on measuring how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. Whether you’re dealing with sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be determined by the quality of your brainwaves.
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction 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 tones and clicks. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it responds. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we do the appropriate tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment in the same way that you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But there are a few ways to treat this condition.
- Hearing aids: Even with auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to enable you to hear better. Hearing aids will be a sufficient solution for some people. But because volume isn’t usually the problem, this isn’t usually the situation. Due to this, hearing aids are usually combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the problem for most individuals. In these situations, a cochlear implant may be necessary. Signals from your inner ear are conveyed directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has lots of videos of individuals having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering certain frequencies. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. This approach often makes use of devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some cases, any and all of these treatments could be combined with communication skills training. This will allow you to work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as possible
As with any hearing condition, timely treatment can result in 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 go back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you make an appointment and get treated. This can be especially critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.