Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the road? It’s not a fun experience. You have to pull your car off the road. And then, for some reason, you probably open your hood and take a look at your engine.
Humorously, you still do this despite the fact that you have no knowledge of engines. Perhaps you think there’ll be a convenient handle you can turn or something. Ultimately, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the issue only becomes evident when mechanics get a look at it. Just because the car is not starting, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because cars are complex and computerized machines.
The same thing can happen sometimes with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily identify what the underlying cause is. There’s the common culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most people think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This kind of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s a bit more involved than simple noise damage.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be the result of something else besides noise damage. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less common, can sometimes be the cause. When sound can’t, for some reason, be effectively sent to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound perfectly fine.
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 loud settings, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique properties 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. Of course, 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: Maybe it feels like somebody is messing with the volume knob in your head! This could be a sign that you’re experiencing 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 go beyond the spoken word and apply to all types of sounds around you.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what someone is saying even though the volume is just fine. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the underlying causes behind this particular condition. It might not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. Both children and adults can experience this disorder. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: If these tiny hairs inside of your inner ear become damaged in a particular way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing portion of your brain receives sound from a particular nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will sound unclear if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds might seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really certain why some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others may not. Because of this, there isn’t a tried and true way to counter auditory neuropathy. But you might be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you present specific close associations.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical likelihood of developing this condition.
Risk factors for children
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A low birth weight
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological conditions
Adult risk factors
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Immune disorders of various kinds
- Certain infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Auditory neuropathy and other hearing conditions that are passed on genetically
- Certain medications (specifically improper use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
Limiting the risks as much as you can is always a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart plan, particularly if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A normal hearing test involves listening to tones with a set of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very limited use.
Instead, we will usually suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be fastened to specific places on your head and scalp with this test. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes put particular focus on measuring how your brainwaves respond to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave reactions 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: This diagnostic is designed to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. We will put a small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of clicks and tones will be played. The diagnostic device will then evaluate how well your inner ear responds to those tones and clicks. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the problem.
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 auto technician 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 a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even with auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to enable you to hear better. For some individuals, hearing aids will work just fine! Having said that, this isn’t typically the case, because, once again, volume is almost never the problem. As a result, hearing aids are usually combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problem for most people. In these instances, a cochlear implant could be necessary. Signals from your inner ear are transmitted directly to your brain with this implant. They’re rather amazing! (And you can find all kinds of YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or reduction of certain frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what occurs. This strategy often utilizes devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments could 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 receive treatment, the better
As with any hearing disorder, timely treatment can produce better results.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal 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 daily life! This can be extremely critical for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.