Have you ever had your car break down in the middle of the highway? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled to the side of the road. And then, for whatever reason, you probably open your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s strange is that you do this even if you have no idea how engines work. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally 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 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) are not enough to tell you what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically indicate what the cause is. There’s the usual culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most people consider hearing loss, they think of loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your ability to hear. This type of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complicated than that, but you get the point.
But in some cases, this kind of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less common, can sometimes be the cause. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be correctly transmitted to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound perfectly fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear well in noisy settings, you keep cranking up the volume on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
However, 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 certain that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. Though, naturally, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can pertain to all kinds of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like somebody is playing with the volume knob. If you’re encountering these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- The inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. 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 may not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. This condition can develop in both children and adults. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain doesn’t receive the full signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will sound off. Sounds may seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a specific way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is quite sure why some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. But you may be at a higher risk of experiencing auditory neuropathy if you present specific close associations.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors are not guarantees, you could have all of these risk factors and still not experience auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of developing this disorder.
Risk factors for children
Here are a few risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A low birth weight
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Other neurological conditions
- Preterm or premature birth
Adult risk factors
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Immune disorders of various types
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
In general, it’s a smart plan to minimize these risks as much as you can. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart plan, especially if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a typical hearing test, you’ll likely be given a set 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.
One of the following two tests will typically be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be checked with this diagnostic. We will put a little microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of clicks and tones. The diagnostic device will then evaluate how well your inner ear reacts to those tones and clicks. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will expose it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific spots on your scalp and head with this test. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with particular 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.
Once we run the appropriate tests, we will be able to more successfully diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So, just like you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be treated in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some less severe cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even with auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be an adequate option for some people. Having said that, this isn’t usually the case, because, again, volume is virtually never the issue. Hearing aids are usually used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problems. It may be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these cases. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and carries them directly to your brain. They’re pretty amazing! (And you can watch all kinds of YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering specific frequencies. That’s what occurs with a technology known as frequency modulation. This approach often makes use of devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, 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 get treatment, the better
As with any hearing condition, prompt treatment can produce better outcomes.
So it’s important to get your hearing loss treated right away whether it’s the common form or auditory neuropathy. The sooner you make 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, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.