Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the road? That really stinks! You have to pull your car safely to the side of the road. And then, for some reason, you probably open your hood and take a look at your engine.
Humorously, you still do this despite the fact that you have no understanding of engines. Maybe you think there’ll be a convenient knob you can turn or something. Eventually, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And a picture of the problem only becomes apparent when mechanics diagnose it. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t start) are not enough to tell you what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur at times with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always obvious by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the typical cause. But in some cases, 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 form of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
But in some cases, this type of long-term, noise related damage is not the cause of hearing loss. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. This is a hearing disorder in which your ear and inner ear receive sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit those sounds to your brain.
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 loud settings, you keep turning up the volume on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some specific symptoms that make discovering it easier. These presentations are rather solid indicators that you aren’t dealing with sensorineural hearing loss, but with auditory neuropathy instead. Obviously, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are some of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Difficulty understanding speech: Sometimes, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are unclear and muddled sounding.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Once again, this is not an issue 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.
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like somebody is messing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re dealing with these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the underlying causes behind this particular disorder. It may not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been damaged in a particular way.
- Nerve damage: 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 unclear if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds may seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
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 tried and true way to prevent auditory neuropathy. But you may be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you show certain close connections.
It should be noted that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you may have all of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical probability of developing this condition.
Children’s risk factors
Here are a few risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Other neurological disorders
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Preterm or premature birth
- A low birth weight
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Immune disorders of various types
Minimizing the risks as much as possible is generally a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart idea, especially if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a normal hearing examination, you’ll most likely be given a set of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
One of the following two tests will usually be done instead:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to certain places on your scalp and head with this test. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us determine whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be tested with this diagnostic. We will put a small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of tones and clicks. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it responds. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the problem.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we do the applicable tests.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
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. Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this disorder can be treated in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to enable you to hear better. For some people, hearing aids will work just fine! But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t normally the case. As a result, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the issue for most people. In these cases, a cochlear implant might be needed. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. They’re quite amazing! (And you can watch many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or diminution of specific frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s exactly what occurs. This strategy often makes use of devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be put together 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 receive treatment, the better
Getting your disorder treated right away will, as with any hearing disorder, lead to better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life after you make an appointment and get treated. This can be especially critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.