Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable experience. You have to pull your car off the road. Then you 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. Maybe you think there’ll be a handy handle you can turn or something. Inevitably, a tow truck will have to be called.
And it’s only when the professionals check out things that you get a picture of the problem. That’s because cars are complicated, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t move) are not enough to tell you what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily reveal what the underlying cause is. There’s the common culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
What is auditory neuropathy?
When most individuals consider hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your hearing. This form of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s a bit more involved than simple noise damage.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something other than noise damage. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less common, can sometimes be the cause. This is a hearing disorder where your ear and inner ear receive sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully convey those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms associated with auditory neuropathy are, at first glance, 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. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and manage.
However, auditory neuropathy does have a few unique properties that make it possible to identify. When hearing loss symptoms present in this way, you can be fairly certain that it’s not typical noise related hearing loss. Though, naturally, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are some of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- An inability to distinguish words: In some cases, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are unclear and muddled sounding.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Again, this isn’t 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 apply to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like someone is messing with the volume knob in your head! If you’re encountering these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
The underlying causes of this disorder can, in part, be defined by the symptoms. On a personal level, the reasons why you may experience auditory neuropathy may not be totally clear. Both children and adults can develop this disorder. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, generally speaking:
- Damage to the nerves: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain can’t get the complete signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will seem off. When this occurs, you might interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to discern.
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in full form once these little delicate hairs have been compromised in a specific way.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is quite sure why. As a result, there isn’t a tried and true way to counter auditory neuropathy. But you may be at a higher risk of experiencing auditory neuropathy if you show particular close associations.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still may or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to experience auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Risk factors for children
Factors that can increase the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A low birth weight
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological conditions
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
Risk factors for adults
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Immune disorders of various kinds
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing conditions that run in the family
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
Limiting the risks as much as you can is generally a good idea. If risk factors are present, it might be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A standard hearing test involves 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 very much with auditory neuropathy.
One of the following two tests will typically be done instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be tested with this diagnostic. A tiny microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of tones and clicks. The diagnostic device will then determine how well your inner ear responds to those tones and clicks. If the inner ear is a problem, 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. Again, don’t be concerned, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. Whether you’re dealing with 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 do the applicable tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment in the same way that you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. In general, 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 supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even with auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be an adequate solution for some individuals. That said, this isn’t usually the case, because, again, volume is virtually never the issue. Due to this, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problems. In these situations, a cochlear implant could be necessary. Signals from your inner ear are conveyed directly to your brain with this implant. They’re quite amazing! (And you can find all kinds of YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or diminution of specific frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. This approach frequently utilizes devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments might be combined with communication skills exercises. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
As with any hearing condition, timely treatment can result in better results.
So it’s important 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 daily life! Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.