Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable experience. Your car has to be safely pulled to the side of the road. And then, for some reason, you probably open your hood and have a look at your engine.
What’s funny is that you do this even if you have no clue how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Inevitably, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the problem only becomes apparent when mechanics get a look at it. Just because the car isn’t starting, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because vehicles are complex and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically indicate what the cause is. There’s the normal cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most individuals think of extremely loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This type of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complex than that, but you get the idea.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something other than noise damage. While it’s less common, hearing loss can in some cases be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. This is a hearing disorder where your ear and inner ear collect sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully convey those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms associated with auditory neuropathy are, at first glimpse, not all that distinct from those symptoms associated with traditional hearing loss. Things like turning up the volume on your devices and not being capable of hearing very well in loud environments. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some distinctive symptoms that make determining it easier. These presentations are rather solid indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, 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 normal, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and unclear.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like somebody is messing with the volume knob. This could be an indication that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is just fine, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t make sense of them. This can pertain to all kinds of sounds, not just spoken words.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this particular condition. It might not be very clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. This condition can develop in both children and adults. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in full form once these little fragile hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will seem confused if there is damage to this nerve. When this occurs, you might interpret sounds as jumbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to differentiate.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is really certain why. That’s why there’s no exact science to combating it. Nevertheless, there are close associations which might show that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this condition.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you may have all 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 a few risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Preterm or premature birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological conditions
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- A low birth weight
- Liver disorders that cause jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
Risk factors for adults
Here are a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Some medications (especially incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Immune disorders of various kinds
Minimizing the risks as much as you can is always a good idea. If risk factors are there, it may be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
A standard hearing test consists of listening to tones with a set of headphones and raising a hand depending on which side you hear the tone on. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
One of the following two tests will typically be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. A little microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of clicks and tones will be played. The diagnostic device will then determine how well your inner ear reacts 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 fastened to specific places on your scalp and head with this test. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with specific attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us determine whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we run the appropriate 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! Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But there are several ways to treat this condition.
- Hearing aids: In some less severe cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. For some individuals, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! But because volume isn’t usually the problem, this isn’t typically the case. Due to this, hearing aids are frequently combined with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the problem for most people. It might be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these situations. Signals from your inner ear are conveyed directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has lots of videos of people having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or diminution of certain frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this approach.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be combined with any combination of these treatments if necessary. 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 disorder, produce better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as quickly as you can. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your daily life! This can be extremely crucial for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.