Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable situation. Your car has to be safely pulled 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 understanding of engines. Perhaps you think there’ll be a convenient handle you can turn or something. Inevitably, a tow truck will have to be called.
And it’s only when the mechanics get a look at things that you get an understanding of the problem. That’s because cars are complicated, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t move) aren’t enough to tell you what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same sort of thing can happen. The cause isn’t always apparent by the symptoms. There’s the normal cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, it’s something else, something such as auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most people think of extremely loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This form of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
But in some cases, this sort of long-term, noise induced damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can sometimes be the cause. This is a hearing disorder in which your ear and inner ear collect sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully convey those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear well in loud situations, you keep turning up the volume on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can often make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and treat.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some unique symptoms that make recognizing it easier. These presentations are rather strong indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, naturally, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Again, this is not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can pertain to all kinds of sounds, not just spoken words.
- The inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t distinguish what’s being said. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like someone is messing with the volume knob. If you’re experiencing these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
The root causes of this disorder can, in part, be defined by the symptoms. It may not be very clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both children and adults can experience this condition. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- 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 receives sound from a particular nerve in your ear. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain can’t receive the full signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will sound wrong. Sounds may seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some people will develop auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is quite certain why. 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 specific close connections.
It should be noted that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you might have all of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to develop auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Risk factors for children
Here are a few risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Other neurological conditions
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A low birth weight
- Liver conditions that cause jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Certain infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Various kinds of immune disorders
Generally, it’s a good plan to minimize these risks as much as you can. If risk factors are there, it might be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
During a typical hearing examination, you’ll most 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 normally be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed 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 tones and clicks will be played. The diagnostic device will then evaluate 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 attached to certain spots on your head and scalp with this test. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes place particular emphasis on tracking how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. Whether you’re experiencing sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be determined 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.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this disorder can be managed in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even with auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to allow you to hear better. Hearing aids will be a sufficient option for some people. Having said that, this is not generally the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the issue. Hearing aids are usually used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids will not be able to solve the issues. In these situations, a cochlear implant may be needed. Signals from your inner ear are conveyed directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has lots of videos of people having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or diminution of certain frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. This strategy frequently uses devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be put together 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
As with any hearing disorder, timely treatment can result in better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as quickly as possible. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your daily life! This can be extremely critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.