Have you ever had your car 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 whatever reason, you probably pop your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s funny is that you do this even if you have no idea how engines work. Maybe you think there’ll be a handy handle you can turn or something. Ultimately, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a mechanic.
And it’s only when the professionals check out things that you get an understanding of the problem. That’s because cars are intricate, 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 type of thing can happen. The cause isn’t always evident by the symptoms. There’s the usual cause (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, it’s something else, something such as auditory neuropathy.
What is auditory neuropathy?
When most individuals think about hearing loss, they think of loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your ability to hear. This type of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
But sometimes, this type of long-term, noise related damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. 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.
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 very well in loud settings, you keep turning up the volume on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can frequently make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and treat.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to diagnose. When hearing loss symptoms manifest in this way, you can be pretty certain that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. 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: Perhaps it feels like somebody is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re dealing with these symptoms it may be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- The inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, you can’t understand what someone is saying even though the volume is normal. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is just fine, the issue is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can go beyond the spoken word and apply to all kinds of sounds around you.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific disorder. It might not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing center of your brain gets sound from a particular nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will seem confused if there is damage to this nerve. When this occurs, you might interpret sounds as garbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to discern.
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: If these delicate hairs in your inner ear become damaged in a specific way, the sound your ear senses can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its full form.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really sure why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. Nevertheless, there are close connections which may indicate 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 may 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 increase the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- Liver disorders that cause jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- A low birth weight
- Other neurological disorders
- 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
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
- Certain medications (specifically improper use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
- Various types of immune disorders
Generally, it’s a good plan to minimize these risks as much as you can. If risk factors are present, it might be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a normal hearing examination, you’ll likely be given a pair of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of extremely minimal use.
One of the following two tests will usually be used instead:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific spots on your scalp and head with this test. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes place particular emphasis on tracking how your brainwaves respond to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave responses 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. A little microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of clicks and tones will be played. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it reacts. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more successfully diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be treated in a few possible ways.
- 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 people, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! Having said that, this is not typically the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the issue. Due to this, hearing aids are frequently coupled with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids will not be able to solve the problems. It may be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these instances. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has plenty of videos of individuals having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by increasing or reducing certain frequencies. That’s what happens with a technology known as frequency modulation. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if necessary. This will allow you to work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as you can
As with any hearing disorder, prompt treatment can produce better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just regular old hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible. You’ll be able to go back to hearing better and enjoying your life after 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.