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 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 knowledge of engines. Perhaps you think there’ll be a handy knob you can turn or something. Ultimately, a tow truck will need to be called.
And it’s only when the experts get a look at things that you get an understanding 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 tell you what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically identify what the cause is. There’s the usual cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most individuals think about hearing loss, they think of loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your hearing. This type of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than basic noise damage.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be the result of something other than noise damage. While it’s less prevalent, hearing loss can in some cases be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be correctly sent to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound just fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first glance, not all that distinct from those symptoms linked to traditional hearing loss. You can’t hear well in noisy settings, you keep cranking the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort 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 pretty strong indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, nothing can replace getting a real-time diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like somebody is messing with the volume knob inside of your head! This could be a sign that you’re experiencing auditory neuropathy.
- An inability to make out words: Sometimes, you can’t understand what a person is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound garbled or distorted.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can go beyond the speech and apply to all types of sounds around you.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
The root causes of this disorder can, in part, be explained by its symptoms. On a personal level, the reasons why you might develop auditory neuropathy might not be entirely clear. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain gets sound from a particular nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will sound confused if there is damage to this nerve. When this occurs, you may interpret sounds as jumbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to discern.
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been compromised in a specific way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is really sure why. That’s why there’s no exact science to combating it. But you may be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you present certain close connections.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still may or may not experience auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of experiencing this disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Factors that can increase the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- Other neurological disorders
- A low birth weight
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Liver conditions that lead to jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
- Certain medications (specifically improper use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- Immune disorders of various kinds
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
Minimizing the risks as much as you can is generally a smart plan. If risk factors are there, it may be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a normal hearing assessment, you’ll likely be given a set 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 minimal use.
Rather, we will usually suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During the course of this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to certain places on your scalp and head. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes place particular focus on measuring how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us identify whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be evaluated with this diagnostic. A little microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of clicks and tones will be played. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it reacts. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively 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 get it fixed. Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But there are several ways to manage this disorder.
- Hearing aids: In some moderate cases, hearing aids will be able to provide the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be a sufficient option for some people. But because volume isn’t usually the problem, this isn’t usually the situation. Due to this, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the issue for most individuals. It may be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these cases. Signals from your inner ear are transmitted directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has lots of videos of individuals having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or diminution of certain frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s exactly what happens. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this approach.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments could be combined with communication skills exercises. 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, timely treatment can lead to better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as quickly 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! This can be extremely critical for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.