Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? That really stinks! You have to pull your car safely to the side of the road. And then, for some reason, you probably pop your hood and have a look at your engine.
What’s strange is that you do this even though you have no clue how engines work. Maybe whatever is wrong will be obvious. Eventually, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And it’s only when the professionals get a look at things that you get an understanding of the issue. That’s because cars are complex, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) are not enough to tell you what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can occur. The cause is not always obvious by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the common culprit. 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 damages your hearing. This form of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
But sometimes, this sort of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less prevalent, hearing loss can in some cases 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.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can often look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear well in loud settings, you keep cranking up the volume on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can frequently make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and treat.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some distinctive symptoms that make recognizing it easier. When hearing loss symptoms present like this, you can be pretty sure that it’s not normal noise related hearing loss. Though, naturally, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- 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: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is just fine, the issue is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can apply to all kinds of sounds, not just speech.
- The inability to make out words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
The root causes of this disorder can, in part, be defined by its symptoms. On an individual level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy may not be completely clear. Both children and adults can experience this condition. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, generally speaking:
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will sound confused if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds may seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: If these little hairs in your inner ear become compromised in a particular way, the sound your ear senses can’t really be passed on to your brain, at least, not in its full form.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really sure why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to preventing it. But you may be at a higher risk of experiencing auditory neuropathy if you show certain close connections.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors are not guarantees, you might have all 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 raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- A low birth weight
- Other neurological disorders
- Liver disorders that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Preterm or premature birth
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Immune disorders of various types
- Certain infectious diseases, such as mumps
In general, it’s a smart plan to minimize these risks as much as possible. If risk factors are there, it may be a good idea 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 told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
One of the following two tests will typically be done instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. A tiny microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of clicks and tones. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it responds. If the inner ear is an issue, this data will expose it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized electrodes attached to specific places on your scalp and head. Again, don’t be concerned, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us determine whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
Once we run the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So, just like you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But there are several ways to treat this condition.
- Hearing aids: Even with auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to allow you to hear better. For some people, hearing aids will work just fine! That said, this is not typically the case, because, again, volume is virtually never the issue. Hearing aids are often used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the issue for most people. It might be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these cases. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and carries them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of individuals having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering certain frequencies. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be combined with any combination of these treatments if necessary. 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 possible
Getting your disorder treated right away 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 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! This can be especially crucial for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.