Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the road? It’s not an enjoyable experience. You have to pull your car off the road. Then you likely open your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
Humorously, you still do this despite the fact that you have no knowledge of engines. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Eventually, you have to call someone to tow your car to a mechanic.
And it’s only when the experts check out things that you get a picture of the issue. Just because the car isn’t moving, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because cars are complicated and computerized machines.
The same thing can occur sometimes with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically indicate what the cause is. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the common 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 form of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complex than that, but you get the point.
But in some cases, this type of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less common, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. This is a hearing disorder in which your ear and inner ear receive sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first glimpse, not all that dissimilar from those symptoms associated with traditional hearing loss. Things like turning up the volume on your devices and not being capable of hearing well in loud environments. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some distinctive symptoms that make identifying it easier. When hearing loss symptoms present in this way, you can be fairly certain that it’s not normal noise related hearing loss. Of course, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like somebody is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re encountering these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- The inability to make out words: In some cases, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Once again, this isn’t a problem with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is just fine, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can go beyond the speech and pertain to all types of sounds around you.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this particular condition. It might not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. This disorder can develop in both children and adults. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be compromised: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in full form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a specific way.
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will seem unclear if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds might seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is quite sure why. Because of this, there isn’t a definitive way to prevent auditory neuropathy. However, there are close connections which may indicate 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 experience 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:
- Preterm or premature birth
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- A low birth weight
- Other neurological conditions
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Liver disorders that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing conditions that run in the family
- Immune disorders of various types
- Certain medications (specifically incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
In general, it’s a good idea to limit these risks as much as possible. If risk factors are there, it might be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a standard hearing examination, you’ll likely be given a pair of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
One of the following two tests will typically be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be evaluated with this diagnostic. A little microphone is put 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 responds. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will expose it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized electrodes attached to specific places on your scalp and head. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us identify whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more successfully diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, just like you bring your car to the auto technician 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 a few ways to treat this disorder.
- Hearing aids: In some less severe cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even with auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be an adequate option for some people. But because volume usually isn’t the problem, this isn’t normally the case. As a result, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the issue for most individuals. It may be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these instances. Signals from your inner ear are transmitted directly to your brain with this implant. They’re pretty 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 lowering specific frequencies. That’s what happens with a technology known as frequency modulation. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are used in this approach.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments could be combined with communication skills training. This will help you communicate with 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 condition treated punctually will, as with any hearing disorder, lead to better outcomes.
So it’s essential to get your hearing loss treated right away whether it’s the ordinary form or auditory neuropathy. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life after you schedule an appointment and get treated. This can be especially critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.