Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? It’s not a fun experience. You have to pull your car safely to the side of the road. And then, for whatever reason, you probably pop your hood and take a look at your engine.
Humorously, you still do this despite the fact that you have no knowledge of engines. Maybe you think there’ll be a handy handle you can turn or something. Inevitably, a tow truck will have to be called.
And a picture of the problem only becomes evident when experts get a look at it. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t move) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur in some cases with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically indicate what the underlying cause is. There’s the usual culprit (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, it’s something else, something such as auditory neuropathy.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most people think of really loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This kind of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s a bit more involved than simple noise damage.
But sometimes, this kind of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less prevalent, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. This is a hearing condition where your ear and inner ear collect sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms related to 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 loud settings, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some unique symptoms that make discovering it easier. When hearing loss symptoms manifest in this way, you can be pretty certain that it’s not normal noise related hearing loss. Of course, 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:
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like someone is messing with the volume knob in your head! If you’re dealing with these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Difficulty understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what a person is saying even though the volume is normal. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can go beyond the spoken word and apply to all kinds of sounds around you.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the root causes behind this specific condition. On a personal level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy may not be completely clear. This condition can develop in both children and adults. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: If these tiny hairs in your inner ear become damaged in a particular way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its full form.
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain can’t receive the complete signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will seem off. When this happens, you may interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to differentiate.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some people will experience auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is quite sure why. As a result, there isn’t a tried and true way to prevent auditory neuropathy. Still, there are close connections which might show that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this disorder.
It should be noted that these risk factors are not guarantees, you might have all of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical likelihood of experiencing this disorder.
Risk factors for children
Here are a few risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- A low birth weight
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological disorders
- Preterm or premature birth
Adult risk factors
Here are a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing conditions that are passed on genetically
- Various types of immune diseases
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
In general, it’s a good plan to minimize these risks as much as you can. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good idea, especially if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a normal hearing test, you’ll most 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 recommend one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. A little microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then a battery 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 issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to certain places on your head and scalp with this test. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with specific attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. Whether you’re dealing with 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 effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
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 get it fixed. Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this condition can be managed in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even with auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to allow you to hear better. Hearing aids will be an adequate solution for some individuals. Having said that, this isn’t usually the case, because, again, volume is almost never the problem. Hearing aids are often used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- 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 instances. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of people having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering specific frequencies. That’s what occurs with a technology known as frequency modulation. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this approach.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if necessary. 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 you can
As with any hearing condition, timely 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 possible. 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.