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. And then, for some reason, you probably pop your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s funny is that you do this even though you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be obvious. Ultimately, a tow truck will have to be called.
And a picture of the issue only becomes obvious when mechanics diagnose 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.
The same thing can occur in some cases with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily reveal what the underlying cause is. There’s the common cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most individuals consider hearing loss, they think of loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your hearing. This kind of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than basic noise damage.
But sometimes, this sort of long-term, noise induced damage is not 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 disorder where your ear and inner ear collect sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer 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. You can’t hear well in noisy situations, you keep turning up the volume on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique properties that make it possible to identify. When hearing loss symptoms manifest in this way, you can be fairly sure that it’s not normal noise related hearing loss. Of course, 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: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like someone is messing with the volume knob. If you’re experiencing these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Trouble understanding speech: In some cases, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Again, this is not an issue 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 pertain to all types of sounds around you.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific condition. It may not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both adults and children can develop this disorder. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, generally speaking:
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will seem confused if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds may seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
- The cilia that deliver signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a particular way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some people will experience auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is quite certain why. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. But you might be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you present specific close connections.
It should be noted that these risk factors are not guarantees, you might have every single one of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of developing this disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Here are some risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- A low birth weight
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Other neurological conditions
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Liver disorders that cause jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
Adult risk factors
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Immune disorders of various kinds
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
In general, it’s a good plan to minimize these risks as much as possible. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good plan, especially if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a typical hearing test, 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 much with auditory neuropathy.
One of the following two tests will typically be used 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 unpleasant in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves react 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.
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. We will put a small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of clicks and tones. The diagnostic device will then determine how well your inner ear reacts to those tones and clicks. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will reveal it.
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, in the same way as you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But there are a few ways to manage this disorder.
- Hearing aids: Even with auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to enable you to hear better. Hearing aids will be a sufficient option for some people. Having said that, this is not usually the case, because, again, volume is almost never the issue. Hearing aids are usually used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids will not be able to solve the problems. In these cases, a cochlear implant might be necessary. Signals from your inner ear are conveyed directly to your brain with this implant. They’re pretty amazing! (And you can watch all kinds of YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or diminution of certain frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what occurs with a technology known as frequency modulation. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this approach.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be put together with any combination of these treatments if needed. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you get treatment, the better
As with any hearing condition, prompt treatment can lead to better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as quickly as you can. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your everyday life! Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.