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. Then you most likely pop your hood and take a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s funny is that you do this even though you have no idea how engines work. 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 mechanics check out things that you get a picture of the problem. That’s because cars are complex, there are so many moving pieces 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 type of thing can happen. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically indicate what the cause is. There’s the normal cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most individuals think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This kind 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 related damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. 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 associated with auditory neuropathy are, at first glance, not all that distinct from those symptoms linked to conventional hearing loss. You can’t hear very well in noisy settings, you keep cranking the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
However, auditory neuropathy does have some unique properties that make it possible to identify. When hearing loss symptoms present like this, you can be pretty sure that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. Though, naturally, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like somebody is playing with the volume knob in your head! If you’re encountering 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 make sense of them. This can pertain to all kinds of sounds, not just speech.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t make out what someone is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound garbled or distorted.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the root causes behind this specific condition. On an individual level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy may not be totally clear. Both children and adults can develop this disorder. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain gets sound from a particular nerve in your ear. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain can’t get the complete signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will sound off. Sounds may seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is quite sure why. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. However, there are close connections which may reveal that you’re at a higher risk of developing this disorder.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not experience auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to experience 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
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Liver disorders that cause jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Other neurological disorders
- Preterm or premature birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing conditions that are passed on genetically
- Various kinds of immune disorders
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
Limiting the risks as much as possible is generally a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart idea, particularly if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
During a standard hearing test, you’ll likely be given a pair of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very limited use.
Instead, we will generally suggest one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be checked with this diagnostic. A tiny microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of tones and clicks will be played. Then your inner ear will be assessed 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 special 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 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.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we do the appropriate tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you take your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this disorder can be managed in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to enable you to hear better. For some individuals, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! That said, this isn’t usually the case, because, again, volume is almost never the issue. Hearing aids are usually used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids will not be able to get around the issues. In these instances, a cochlear implant might be necessary. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has plenty of videos of people having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by increasing or reducing certain frequencies. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s exactly what happens. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this approach.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments might be combined with communication skills training. 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 disorder, prompt treatment can result in better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just regular old 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 everyday life! This can be extremely critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.