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 to the side of the road. Then you probably pop your hood and take a look at the engine. Who knows why?
Humorously, you still do this even though you have no knowledge of engines. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Inevitably, a tow truck will need to be called.
And it’s only when the professionals get a look at things that you get a picture of the issue. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) aren’t enough to tell you what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur at times with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always apparent by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the usual cause. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most people think about hearing loss, they think of loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your hearing. This kind of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complex than that, but you get the point.
But sometimes, this type of long-term, noise related damage isn’t 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 in which 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 related to auditory neuropathy are, at first glance, not all that dissimilar from those symptoms linked to 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 frequently make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and manage.
However, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to identify. These presentations are rather solid indicators that you aren’t dealing with sensorineural hearing loss, but with auditory neuropathy instead. Obviously, nothing can replace getting a real-time diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are some of the more unique symptoms 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 go beyond the speech and pertain to all kinds of sounds around you.
- Difficulty understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what somebody is saying even though the volume is normal. The words sound garbled or distorted.
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like somebody is messing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re experiencing these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific condition. On an individual level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy may not be completely clear. Both adults and children can develop this disorder. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will sound unclear if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds may seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is quite sure why some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while others may not. Because of this, there isn’t a definitive way to counter auditory neuropathy. Still, there are close connections which might reveal that you’re at a higher risk of developing this disorder.
It should be noted that these risk factors are not guarantees, you may have every single one of these risk factors and not experience auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical likelihood of developing this disorder.
Risk factors for children
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- 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
- A low birth weight
- Other neurological disorders
- Liver disorders that result in jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Certain medications (specifically incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
- Certain infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Various kinds of immune disorders
Minimizing the risks as much as possible is generally a smart plan. If risk factors are present, it may be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
A typical hearing test consists of listening to tones with a set of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. That test won’t help very much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will generally suggest one of two tests:
- 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 uncomfortable in any way so don’t worry. 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.
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. We will put a little microphone just inside your ear canal. Then a series of tones and clicks will be played. The diagnostic device will then evaluate how well your inner ear responds to those tones and clicks. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the problem.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we run the appropriate tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this disorder can be managed in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some less severe cases, hearing aids will be able to provide the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even with auditory neuropathy. For some people, hearing aids will work just fine! But because volume isn’t usually the issue, this isn’t usually the situation. Hearing aids are often used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids won’t be able to get around the problems. It might be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these instances. Signals from your inner ear are conveyed directly to your brain with this implant. They’re quite amazing! (And you can find many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or reduction of specific frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. This approach often makes use of devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if needed. This will help you communicate using the hearing you have and work around your symptoms instead of treating them.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as you can
As with any hearing condition, prompt treatment can lead to better results.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as soon as you can. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your daily life! Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.