Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the highway? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. And then, for some reason, you probably open your hood and have 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 obvious. Ultimately, you have to call someone to tow your car to a garage.
And a picture of the problem only becomes obvious when mechanics get a look at it. Just because the car isn’t moving, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because cars are complex and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can happen. The cause is not always obvious by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the typical cause. But sometimes, 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 think of hearing loss. This type of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
But sometimes, this sort of long-term, noise induced damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be properly carried to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound just fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can often look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like cranking the volume up on your devices and not being able to hear well in loud environments. This can frequently make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and treat.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some unique symptoms that make discovering it easier. These presentations are pretty solid indicators that you aren’t experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Obviously, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like someone is messing with the volume knob. This could be an indication that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t make sense of them. This can pertain to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t make out what a person is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound garbled or distorted.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the root causes behind this specific disorder. It might not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. Both children and adults can develop this condition. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that deliver signals to the brain can be compromised: If these little hairs inside of your inner ear become compromised in a specific way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its full form.
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain gets sound from a specific nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will seem confused if there is damage to this nerve. When this takes place, you may interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to differentiate.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is really certain why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. As a result, there isn’t a tried and true way to counter auditory neuropathy. But you may be at a higher risk of experiencing auditory neuropathy if you present particular close connections.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not experience 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:
- Liver conditions that cause jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- A low birth weight
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological conditions
Adult risk factors
Here are a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Some medications (especially improper use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- Various kinds of immune disorders
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
Minimizing the risks as much as you can is always a good idea. If risk factors are present, it may be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a normal hearing examination, you’ll most likely be given a pair of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of extremely minimal use.
Instead, we will usually recommend one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. A little microphone is placed 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 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 connected to certain spots on your head and scalp with this test. Again, don’t be concerned, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us determine whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we run the applicable tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, just like 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 several ways to manage this condition.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to allow you to hear better. Hearing aids will be a sufficient solution for some individuals. That said, this isn’t typically the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the issue. Due to this, hearing aids are usually coupled with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the issue for most individuals. In these situations, a cochlear implant might be necessary. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of people having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or reduction of certain frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s precisely what happens. This approach often uses devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined 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.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as possible
As with any hearing condition, prompt treatment can lead to better results.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just regular old hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as soon as possible. The sooner you make an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your everyday life! This can be especially crucial for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.