Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the highway? 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 whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Sooner or later, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And a picture of the problem only becomes apparent when experts diagnose it. Just because the car is not moving, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because vehicles are complicated and computerized machines.
The same thing can happen at times with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically identify what the cause is. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the usual cause. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most people think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
But in some cases, this sort of long-term, noise related damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. When sound can’t, for some reason, be properly transmitted to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound just fine.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can often look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear very well in noisy settings, you keep cranking up the volume on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and treat.
However, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to identify. When hearing loss symptoms present like this, you can be fairly sure that it’s not normal noise related hearing loss. Obviously, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is completely normal, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can go beyond the speech and apply to all types of sounds around you.
- An inability to distinguish words: In some cases, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are unclear and muddled sounding.
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like somebody is messing with the volume knob in your head! This could be an indication that you’re experiencing auditory neuropathy.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
The root causes of this condition can, in part, be defined by the symptoms. On a personal level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy may not be completely clear. Both adults and children can develop this disorder. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Damage to the nerves: 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 sound confused if there is damage to this nerve. When this happens, you may interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to discern.
- 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 detects can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is quite certain why some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there’s no exact science to combating it. But you might be at a higher risk of experiencing auditory neuropathy if you show certain close associations.
It should be noted that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you might have all of these risk factors and still not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical likelihood of developing this condition.
Risk factors for children
Here are a few risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Other neurological conditions
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A low birth weight
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Immune diseases of various kinds
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
In general, it’s a smart idea to minimize these risks as much as possible. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good idea, particularly if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a standard hearing assessment, you’ll likely be given a pair of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will generally suggest one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. We will put a small microphone 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 responds to those tones and clicks. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the problem.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be fastened to specific places on your head and scalp with this test. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes place particular focus on tracking how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. 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 successful 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 take your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this condition can be managed in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to enable you to hear better. For some individuals, hearing aids will work just fine! Having said that, this is not usually the case, because, once again, volume is almost never the issue. Due to this, hearing aids are usually coupled with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problem for most people. It might be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these instances. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. They’re pretty amazing! (And you can watch many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or reduction of specific frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are used in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if needed. 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
Getting your disorder treated right away will, as with any hearing condition, produce better outcomes.
So it’s important to get your hearing loss treated right away whether it’s the common form or auditory neuropathy. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life after you make an appointment and get treated. Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.