Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the road? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. Then you probably open your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s funny is that you do this even though you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps you think there’ll be a handy handle you can turn or something. Sooner or later, you have to call someone to tow your car to a garage.
And a picture of the issue only becomes apparent when mechanics get a look at it. Just because the car isn’t starting, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because automobiles are complex and computerized machines.
The same thing can occur sometimes with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always obvious by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the usual culprit. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most people think about hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your hearing. This kind of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complex than that, but you get the point.
But sometimes, 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 where your ear and inner ear collect sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look very much 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 frequently make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and treat.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some specific symptoms that make diagnosing it easier. These presentations are rather solid indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Obviously, nothing can replace getting a real-time diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- 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 dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Again, this isn’t an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t make sense of them. This can go beyond the spoken word and pertain to all types of sounds around you.
- The inability to distinguish words: In some cases, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and unclear.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the root causes behind this specific condition. It might not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. Both children and adults can experience this disorder. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be damaged: If these fragile hairs in your inner ear become damaged in a specific way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be passed on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain gets sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain doesn’t get the full signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will seem off. Sounds might seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is quite certain why. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to preventing it. Nevertheless, there are close connections which may reveal that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this disorder.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not experience auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of experiencing this disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- Preterm or premature birth
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- A low birth weight
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Other neurological disorders
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing conditions that run in the family
- Various types of immune disorders
Minimizing the risks as much as you can is generally a good idea. If risk factors are there, it might be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
A standard hearing exam involves listening to tones with a pair of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will typically recommend one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to specific places on your scalp and head. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with specific 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 (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be checked with this diagnostic. A little microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of tones and clicks. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it reacts. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will expose it.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we run 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 bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this disorder can be managed in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to enable you to hear better. For some individuals, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! That said, this isn’t usually the case, because, once again, volume is almost never the issue. Hearing aids are often used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the problem for most people. In these situations, a cochlear implant may be necessary. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. They’re pretty amazing! (And you can find all kinds of YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or diminution of specific frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be put together with any combination of these treatments if necessary. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
As with any hearing condition, timely treatment can lead to better results.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as quickly as you can. You’ll be able to go back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you make an appointment and get treated. Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.