Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable situation. You have to pull your car off the road. And then, for whatever reason, you probably pop your hood and take a look at your engine.
Humorously, you still do this even though you have no knowledge of engines. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Inevitably, a tow truck will have to be called.
And a picture of the problem only becomes evident when experts diagnose it. That’s because cars are complex, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same sort of thing can happen. The cause isn’t always apparent by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the common culprit. But in some cases, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most people think of really loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This form of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than basic noise damage.
But sometimes, this kind of long-term, noise induced damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less common, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for some reason, be effectively transmitted to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound perfectly fine.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can often look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear very well in loud settings, you keep cranking the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can often make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and treat.
However, auditory neuropathy does have a few unique properties that make it possible to diagnose. When hearing loss symptoms present in this way, you can be pretty certain that it’s not normal noise related hearing loss. Obviously, nothing can replace getting a real-time diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Difficulty understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t make out what somebody is saying even though the volume is normal. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like somebody is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re dealing with these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can go beyond the spoken word and apply to all kinds of sounds around you.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the root causes behind this specific disorder. On an individual level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy may not be completely clear. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- Damage to the nerves: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain doesn’t receive the full signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will seem wrong. Sounds may seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be compromised: If these fragile hairs inside of your inner ear become compromised in a particular way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be passed on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is quite certain why some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others may not. As a result, there isn’t a tried and true way to prevent auditory neuropathy. However, there are close connections which may reveal 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 develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to experience auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Children’s risk factors
Here are a few risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Other neurological disorders
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- A low birth weight
- 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
Risk factors for adults
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Certain medications (specifically incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Various types of immune disorders
Limiting the risks as much as you can is always a good idea. If risk factors are present, it may be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A standard hearing exam consists of listening to tones with a set of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of extremely minimal use.
Instead, we will typically recommend one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond 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 measured to see how it responds. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the problem.
- 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 unpleasant in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes put specific emphasis on tracking how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. Whether you’re dealing with sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be determined by the quality of your brainwaves.
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 in the same way that you take your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. 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 boost sound enough to enable you to hear better. Hearing aids will be a sufficient option for some people. But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t usually the case. Due to this, hearing aids are usually combined with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids won’t be able to get around the problems. It may be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these cases. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. The internet has plenty of videos of people having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or reducing certain frequencies. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this approach.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be put together with any combination of these treatments if necessary. This will allow you to work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
As with any hearing disorder, prompt treatment can produce better results.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as quickly as possible. 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 lot of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.