Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway 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 open your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s strange is that you do this even though you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps you think there’ll be a convenient knob you can turn or something. Sooner or later, you have to call someone to tow your car to a mechanic.
And a picture of the issue only becomes obvious when experts diagnose it. Just because the car isn’t moving, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because automobiles are complex and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can happen. The cause isn’t always evident by the symptoms. There’s the usual culprit (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
What is auditory neuropathy?
When most people consider hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your ability to hear. This form of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complex than that, but you get the point.
But in some cases, this sort of long-term, noise related damage is not the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less prevalent, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be effectively sent to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound perfectly fine.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first look, not all that dissimilar from those symptoms linked to traditional hearing loss. Things like turning up the volume on your devices and not being able to hear well in loud settings. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have a few unique properties that make it possible to diagnose. These presentations are pretty strong indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, as always, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what a person is saying even though the volume is just fine. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can pertain to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like somebody is playing with the volume knob. If you’re experiencing these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
The root causes of this disorder can, in part, be explained by its symptoms. It might not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. Both children and adults can experience this condition. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: If these little hairs in 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 full form.
- Damage to the nerves: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain doesn’t receive the complete signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will seem off. When this takes place, you may interpret sounds as jumbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to differentiate.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some people will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is really certain why. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to preventing it. But you may be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you show particular close associations.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical likelihood of experiencing this disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Here are some risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Liver conditions that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- A low birth weight
- 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)
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological conditions
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Certain infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Immune diseases of various kinds
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
In general, it’s a smart idea to minimize these risks as much as possible. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good plan, particularly if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
A normal hearing exam consists of listening to tones with a pair of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will typically suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to certain spots on your head and scalp with this test. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us determine whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. We will put a small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of clicks and tones. The diagnostic device will then evaluate how well your inner ear reacts to those tones and clicks. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will expose it.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we do the applicable tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, in the same way as you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. 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. For some individuals, hearing aids will work just fine! But because volume isn’t usually the problem, this isn’t normally the case. As a result, hearing aids are usually combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the issue for most people. In these cases, a cochlear implant could be necessary. Signals from your inner ear are transmitted directly to your brain with this implant. They’re rather amazing! (And you can find all kinds of YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or reduction of specific frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s precisely what occurs. 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 allow you to work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as possible
Getting your condition treated promptly will, as with any hearing condition, lead to better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you schedule an appointment and get treated. This can be especially crucial for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.