Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled 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 understanding of engines. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Ultimately, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the problem only becomes evident when mechanics get a look at it. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t start) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur sometimes with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always apparent by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the common cause. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
What is auditory neuropathy?
When most individuals consider hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your hearing. This kind of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the point.
But sometimes, this sort of long-term, noise related damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less common, 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 receive sounds perfectly 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 sometimes make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and treat.
However, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to diagnose. These presentations are pretty solid indicators that you aren’t experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are some of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- The inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, you can’t make out what someone is saying even though the volume is normal. The words sound garbled or distorted.
- 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 an indication that you’re experiencing auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you simply can’t make sense of them. This can go beyond the speech and apply to all kinds of sounds around you.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this particular disorder. On an individual level, the reasons why you may experience auditory neuropathy might not be totally clear. Both adults and children can develop this condition. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. 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.
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be compromised: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really certain why some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while others may not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. Nevertheless, there are close connections which might show that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this condition.
Keep 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 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:
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological conditions
- A low birth weight
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Immune diseases of various types
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
Minimizing the risks as much as possible is always a smart plan. If risk factors are there, it may be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
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. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of extremely limited use.
Rather, we will usually suggest one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be tested with this diagnostic. We will put a small microphone 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. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will reveal it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During the course of this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to certain places on your head and scalp. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us identify whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
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 take your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But there are several ways to treat this disorder.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to allow you to hear better. For some people, hearing aids will work just fine! That said, this isn’t generally the case, because, once again, volume is almost never the issue. Due to this, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the issue for most individuals. It may be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these cases. Signals from your inner ear are conveyed directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has plenty of videos of individuals having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering specific frequencies. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what occurs. This approach frequently makes use of devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be put together with any combination of these treatments if needed. 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 it’s important to get your hearing loss treated right away whether it’s the ordinary 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 great deal of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.