Have you ever had your car break down in the middle of the road? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. Then you probably open your hood and take a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s strange is that you do this even though you have no clue how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be obvious. Ultimately, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the issue only becomes evident when mechanics diagnose it. That’s because cars are complex, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) are not enough to tell you what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can happen. The cause isn’t always obvious by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the common cause. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most individuals think about hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your ability to hear. This form of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complex than that, but you get the point.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be the result of something else besides noise damage. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less common, can sometimes be the cause. When sound can’t, for some reason, be properly transmitted to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound perfectly fine.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like turning the volume up on your devices and not being capable of hearing very well in loud environments. 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. When hearing loss symptoms manifest in this way, you can be fairly sure that it’s not typical 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: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like somebody is messing with the volume knob. This could be an indication that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Once again, this is not 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 make sense of them. This can pertain to all kinds of sounds, not just speech.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t make out what someone is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
The root causes of this disorder can, in part, be explained by the symptoms. On a personal level, the reasons why you might develop auditory neuropathy may not be entirely clear. Both adults and children can develop this disorder. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, generally speaking:
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: If these tiny hairs inside of your inner ear become compromised in a particular way, the sound your ear senses can’t really be passed on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain gets sound from a particular nerve in your ear. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain can’t get the full signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will seem off. When this occurs, you may interpret sounds as garbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to discern.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some people will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is really certain why. Because of this, there isn’t a definitive way to counter auditory neuropathy. But you may be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you present specific close connections.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not develop 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 increase the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- Other neurological disorders
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- A low birth weight
- Preterm or premature birth
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Various types of immune diseases
- Some medications (especially improper use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
- Auditory neuropathy and other hearing conditions that run in the family
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
Minimizing the risks as much as possible is always a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good plan, particularly if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
A typical hearing test consists of listening to tones with a set 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.
Rather, we will usually suggest one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. A little microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of clicks and tones 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: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific spots on your scalp and head with this test. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes place specific focus on measuring how your brainwaves respond to sound stimuli. Whether you’re dealing with sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be established by the quality of your brainwaves.
Once we run the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you take your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But there are a few ways to treat this disorder.
- Hearing aids: Even with auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to allow you to hear better. Hearing aids will be a sufficient option for some individuals. But because volume usually isn’t the problem, this isn’t typically the case. Hearing aids are often used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problem for most individuals. In these instances, a cochlear implant may be required. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of people having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or reducing specific frequencies. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this approach.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if necessary. This will help you communicate using the hearing you have and work around your symptoms instead of treating them.
The sooner you get treatment, the better
As with any hearing condition, timely treatment can lead to better results.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as soon as you can. The sooner you make an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your everyday life! This can be especially critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.