Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. And then, for whatever reason, you probably open your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s funny is that you do this even if you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be obvious. Sooner or later, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And it’s only when the experts check out things that you get an understanding of the problem. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t start) aren’t enough to tell you what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can happen. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically reveal what the cause is. There’s the normal cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most individuals think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This form of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the point.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something else besides noise damage. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be properly sent to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound just fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like turning up the volume on your devices and not being capable of hearing well in loud environments. This can often make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and manage.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some specific symptoms that make determining it easier. When hearing loss symptoms manifest in this way, you can be fairly sure that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. Though, as always, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t distinguish what’s being said. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Once again, this isn’t an issue with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is completely normal, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can apply to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like someone is playing with the volume knob. If you’re encountering these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
The underlying causes of this condition can, in part, be explained by the symptoms. On an individual level, the reasons why you might develop auditory neuropathy might not be entirely clear. This disorder can develop in both adults and children. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the nerves: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain can’t get the full signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will sound off. Sounds might seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in full form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a particular way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is quite certain why. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. However, there are close connections which might indicate that you’re at a higher risk of developing this condition.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still may 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
Here are a few risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Preterm or premature birth
- Liver conditions that cause jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Other neurological conditions
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A low birth weight
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
Risk factors for adults
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Various kinds of immune diseases
Generally, it’s a smart plan to limit these risks as much as possible. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good idea, especially if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a standard hearing assessment, you’ll most likely be given a set of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
Rather, we will typically suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be connected to certain spots on your head and scalp with this test. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us identify whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be checked with this diagnostic. We will put a little microphone 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 reacts. If the inner ear is an issue, this data will expose it.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we do the appropriate tests.
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 have it fixed. auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this condition can be treated in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some milder 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 an adequate solution for some individuals. Having said that, this isn’t generally the case, because, once again, volume is almost never the problem. Hearing aids are usually used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the issue for most individuals. In these cases, a cochlear implant might be required. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. They’re pretty amazing! (And you can find many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or reducing certain frequencies. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s exactly what happens. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if needed. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
Getting your condition treated right away will, as with any hearing condition, produce better outcomes.
So it’s essential to get your hearing loss treated as soon as possible whether it’s the common form or auditory neuropathy. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your everyday life! Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.