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 probably pop your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s funny is that you do this even if you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be obvious. Eventually, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And a picture of the issue only becomes obvious when mechanics get a look at it. Just because the car isn’t moving, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because cars are complex and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can happen. The cause isn’t always obvious by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the typical cause. But sometimes, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most people think of really loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This kind of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be the result of something else besides noise damage. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. When sound can’t, for some reason, be properly carried to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound perfectly 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 well in noisy situations, you keep cranking the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can often make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and treat.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique properties that make it possible to identify. When hearing loss symptoms manifest like this, you can be fairly certain 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: Maybe it feels like someone is messing with the volume knob in your head! If you’re experiencing these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. The words sound garbled or distorted.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Once again, this isn’t an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you simply can’t make sense of them. This can go beyond the spoken word and pertain to all types of sounds around you.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific disorder. It may not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. This condition can develop in both children and adults. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in full form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain gets 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 might seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is quite sure why some people will develop auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. However, there are close associations which may indicate that you’re at a higher risk of developing this disorder.
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.
Risk factors for children
Here are some risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Liver conditions that lead to jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- A low birth weight
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological conditions
- Preterm or premature birth
Risk factors for adults
Here are a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Immune disorders of various kinds
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
Minimizing the risks as much as possible is generally a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart plan, especially if you do have risk factors.
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 normally be done instead:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be fastened to specific places on your head and scalp with this test. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes put particular emphasis on measuring how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. Whether you’re dealing with sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be determined by the quality of your brainwaves.
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. A little microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of clicks and tones. The diagnostic device will then measure how well your inner ear reacts to those tones and clicks. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the problem.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we do the applicable tests.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So, in the same way as you bring your car to the auto technician to have it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be managed in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some moderate 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 is not usually the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the issue. Due to this, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids will not be able to get around the problems. It may be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these situations. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. They’re rather 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 increasing or reducing certain frequencies. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: In some cases, any and all of these treatments could be combined with communication skills training. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you get treatment, the better
Getting your disorder treated promptly will, as with any hearing disorder, produce better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as quickly 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! Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.