Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? It’s not a fun situation. 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?
Humorously, you still do this even though you have no understanding of engines. Perhaps you think there’ll be a handy knob you can turn or something. Inevitably, a tow truck will have to be called.
And it’s only when the experts get a look at things that you get an understanding of the issue. That’s because cars are complex, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t start) aren’t enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can happen. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically indicate what the cause is. There’s the usual culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. 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 think of hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than basic noise damage.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be the result of something other than 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 sent to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound perfectly fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear well in noisy situations, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. This can often make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and manage.
However, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to diagnose. These presentations are pretty solid indicators that you aren’t dealing with sensorineural hearing loss, but with auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like someone is messing with the volume knob. If you’re encountering these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- An inability to make out words: Sometimes, you can’t make out what somebody is saying even though the volume is just fine. Words are confused and unclear.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Once again, this is not a problem with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is completely normal, 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 speech.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
The root causes of this disorder can, in part, be explained by the symptoms. It might not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both children and adults can experience this condition. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, generally speaking:
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain doesn’t receive the complete signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will sound wrong. When this happens, you may interpret sounds as jumbled, unclear, or too quiet to differentiate.
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: If these little hairs inside of your inner ear become compromised in a particular way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its full form.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really sure why some people will develop auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. Still, there are close associations which might reveal that you’re at a higher risk of developing this disorder.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you could have every single one of these risk factors and still not experience auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to develop auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Children’s risk factors
Here are some risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Preterm or premature birth
- A low birth weight
- Liver disorders that lead to 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)
Adult risk factors
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Various types of immune disorders
- Auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
In general, it’s a smart idea to minimize these risks as much as you can. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good idea, especially if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a typical hearing assessment, you’ll most likely be given a pair of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help very much with auditory neuropathy.
One of the following two tests will usually be done instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be checked with this diagnostic. A little microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then a series of clicks and tones will be played. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it responds. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to specific spots on your scalp and head. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. 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 determined by the quality of your brainwaves.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we run the applicable tests.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So, just like you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But there are several ways to treat this disorder.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to allow you to hear better. Hearing aids will be an adequate solution for some individuals. Having said that, this is not generally the case, because, again, volume is virtually never the issue. Hearing aids are usually used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids will not be able to solve the issues. In these situations, a cochlear implant could be necessary. Signals from your inner ear are conveyed directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has lots of videos of individuals having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or diminution of certain frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what happens with a technology known as frequency modulation. This strategy frequently uses devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some cases, any and all of these treatments might 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 condition treated promptly will, as with any hearing condition, lead to 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 make 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.