Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? It’s not a fun situation. Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. And then, for some reason, you probably pop your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s funny is that you do this even though you have no clue how engines work. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Ultimately, a tow truck will have to be called.
And it’s only when the mechanics get a look at things that you get a picture of the issue. Just because the car is not moving, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because vehicles are complicated and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically indicate what the cause is. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the usual cause. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most people think of extremely loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This form of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the point.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something other than noise damage. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less common, can sometimes be the cause. This is a hearing condition in which your ear and inner ear receive sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
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 turning up the volume on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can often make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and treat.
However, auditory neuropathy does have a few unique properties that make it possible to identify. These presentations are pretty solid indicators that you aren’t experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, naturally, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- An inability to make out words: Sometimes, you can’t understand what somebody is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound garbled or distorted.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can apply to all sorts of sounds, not just speech.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like someone is playing with the volume knob. This could be a sign that you’re experiencing auditory neuropathy.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the root causes behind this particular disorder. It might not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both children and adults can experience this condition. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in full form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a specific way.
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will sound unclear if there is damage to this nerve. When this takes place, you may interpret sounds as garbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to discern.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is really sure why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others may not. As a result, there isn’t a definitive way to counter auditory neuropathy. But you might be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you show specific close connections.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors are not guarantees, you could 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
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- Preterm or premature birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- A low birth weight
- Other neurological disorders
- Liver conditions that lead to jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Certain medications (specifically incorrect 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
- Various kinds of immune disorders
In general, it’s a good idea to limit these risks as much as possible. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart idea, particularly if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A typical hearing exam consists of listening to tones with a set of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
Instead, we will generally recommend one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be checked with this diagnostic. We will put a small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of clicks and tones. The diagnostic device will then determine how well your inner ear reacts to those tones and clicks. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to certain places on your scalp and head. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes place specific focus on measuring how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us identify whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we run the appropriate tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, in the same way as you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But there are a few ways to manage this condition.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to allow you to hear better. For some individuals, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! That said, this is not generally the case, because, again, volume is almost never the issue. As a result, hearing aids are frequently coupled with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids won’t be able to get around the problems. In these instances, a cochlear implant could be needed. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. The internet has plenty of videos of people having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering specific frequencies. That’s what occurs with a technology known as frequency modulation. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this approach.
- Communication skills training: In some cases, 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.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as you can
Getting your condition treated right away will, as with any hearing disorder, produce better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just regular old hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as soon as you can. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you schedule an appointment and get treated. Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.