Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable situation. You have to pull your car safely to the side of the road. Then you probably pop your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
Humorously, you still do this even though you have no knowledge of engines. Perhaps you think there’ll be a handy handle you can turn or something. Ultimately, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the problem only becomes obvious when mechanics get a look at it. That’s because cars are complicated, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) aren’t enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily reveal what the underlying cause is. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the typical culprit. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most individuals think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something other than noise damage. While it’s less common, hearing loss can in some cases be caused by a condition called auditory neuropathy. This is a hearing condition 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. Things like cranking up the volume on your devices and not being able to hear well in loud settings. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have a few unique properties that make it possible to identify. When hearing loss symptoms present like this, you can be fairly sure that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. Obviously, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Trouble understanding speech: In some cases, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like somebody is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re experiencing these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you simply can’t understand them. This can apply to all sorts of sounds, not just speech.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
The underlying causes of this condition can, in part, be defined by the symptoms. On an individual level, the reasons why you might develop auditory neuropathy may not be totally clear. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain gets sound from a particular 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 sound wrong. Sounds may seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been compromised in a specific way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is really sure why. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. Still, there are close associations which might show that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this disorder.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you could have all of these risk factors and not experience auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical probability of developing this condition.
Children’s risk factors
Factors that can increase the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological conditions
- A low birth weight
- Preterm or premature birth
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
Risk factors for adults
Here are a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Some medications (especially improper use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
- Immune diseases of various types
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
Limiting the risks as much as possible is always a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart idea, especially if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
During a typical hearing examination, you’ll most likely be given a set of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help very much with auditory neuropathy.
Rather, we will generally suggest one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. We will put a small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then a series of tones and clicks will be played. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it responds. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will reveal it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During the course of this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to certain places on your scalp and head. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with specific attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. Whether you’re dealing with sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be established by the quality of your brainwaves.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we run the appropriate tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
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! Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this condition can be managed in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some moderate cases, hearing aids will be able to provide the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. For some individuals, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! That said, this is not usually the case, because, once again, volume is almost never the issue. Hearing aids are usually used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problems. In these situations, a cochlear implant could be required. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of individuals having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or diminution of specific frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what happens. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this approach.
- Communication skills training: In some cases, any and all of these treatments might be combined with communication skills training. This will help you communicate with the hearing you have and work around your symptoms instead of treating them.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
As with any hearing disorder, timely treatment can produce better outcomes.
So it’s essential to get your hearing loss treated as soon as possible 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 schedule an appointment and get treated. Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.