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 most likely open your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s strange is that you do this even if you have no clue how engines work. Maybe you think there’ll be a handy handle you can turn or something. Eventually, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a mechanic.
And a picture of the issue only becomes evident when mechanics get a look at it. That’s because cars are complicated, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t start) are not enough to tell you what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur in some cases with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always apparent by the symptoms. There’s the common culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most individuals think of really loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This form of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s a bit more involved than simple noise damage.
But in some cases, this kind of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less common, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be correctly carried to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound just fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first look, not all that distinct from those symptoms linked to conventional hearing loss. You can’t hear well in loud settings, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some distinctive symptoms that make identifying it easier. When hearing loss symptoms present like this, you can be pretty sure that it’s not typical noise related hearing loss. Obviously, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Trouble understanding speech: In some cases, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are unclear and muddled sounding.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Again, this isn’t a problem 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 sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like somebody is playing with the volume knob. This could be a sign that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific disorder. On a personal level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy may not be totally clear. Both adults and children can experience this condition. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be compromised: If these tiny hairs inside of your inner ear become compromised in a specific way, the sound your ear senses can’t really be passed on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
- 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 takes place, you might interpret sounds as jumbled, unclear, or too quiet to discern.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is really certain why. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. But you may be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you show specific close connections.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not experience auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical likelihood of developing this condition.
Children’s risk factors
Here are a few risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Preterm or premature birth
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- A low birth weight
- Liver conditions that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological disorders
Adult risk factors
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
- Immune disorders of various types
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
Minimizing the risks as much as possible 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 typical hearing assessment, you’ll most likely be given a set of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
One of the following two tests will usually be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. We will put a small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of clicks and tones. The diagnostic device will then determine how well your inner ear responds to those tones and clicks. If the inner ear is an issue, this data will reveal it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific places on your head and scalp with this test. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. Whether you’re experiencing sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be determined by the quality of your brainwaves.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we run the applicable tests.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So, just like you bring your car to the auto technician to get it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be managed in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some moderate cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even with auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be an adequate solution for some individuals. But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t typically the situation. Hearing aids are often used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the issue for most people. It may be necessary to go with 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 plenty of videos of people having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or reduction of specific frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. This approach often uses devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be put together 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 promptly will, as with any hearing disorder, produce better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just regular old hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as quickly as possible. The sooner you make 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 growth during their early years.