Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable situation. You have to pull your car off the road. And then, for whatever reason, you probably pop your hood and have a look at your engine.
What’s strange is that you do this even though you have no clue how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Ultimately, you have to call someone to tow your car to a garage.
And it’s only when the experts get a look at things that you get an understanding of the issue. That’s because cars are complicated, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t start) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically reveal what the cause is. There’s the usual cause (noise-associated 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 loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your ability to hear. This form of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complicated than that, but you get the point.
But in some cases, this sort of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less common, hearing loss can in some cases be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. This is a hearing condition in which your ear and inner ear receive sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer 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 associated with traditional hearing loss. You can’t hear well in noisy situations, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. 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 diagnose. When hearing loss symptoms present like this, you can be pretty certain 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 distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Once again, this is not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can go beyond the spoken word and apply to all kinds of sounds around you.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t make out what a person is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound garbled or distorted.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like someone is playing with the volume knob. If you’re dealing with these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the root causes behind this specific disorder. It might not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. Both adults and children can experience this disorder. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- The cilia that deliver signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
- Damage to the nerves: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will seem confused if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds may seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really sure why some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others may not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to preventing it. But you might be at a higher risk of experiencing auditory neuropathy if you show certain close connections.
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
Here are a few risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological disorders
- Liver disorders that result in jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- 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)
- A low birth weight
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Certain medications (especially improper use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Immune diseases of various types
In general, it’s a smart plan to minimize these risks as much as you can. If risk factors are present, it may be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
During a normal hearing assessment, you’ll most likely be given a set of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
Rather, we will typically suggest one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. A little microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of clicks and tones will be played. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it reacts. 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. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us identify whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
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, in the same way as you bring your car to the auto technician to have it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But there are a few ways to manage this condition.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to allow you to hear better. Hearing aids will be an adequate option for some people. But because volume isn’t usually the issue, this isn’t usually the case. As a result, hearing aids are usually coupled with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids will not be able to get around the problems. In these instances, a cochlear implant may be necessary. Signals from your inner ear are transmitted directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has plenty of videos of individuals having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or reduction of specific frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what occurs. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this approach.
- 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 receive treatment, the better
Getting your disorder treated promptly will, as with any hearing disorder, produce better outcomes.
So it’s important to get your hearing loss treated right away whether it’s the ordinary form or auditory neuropathy. You’ll be able to go back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you make an appointment and get treated. This can be extremely critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.