Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? That really stinks! You have to pull your car off the road. And then, for some 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 obvious. Inevitably, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the problem only becomes apparent when experts get a look at it. Just because the car is not starting, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because vehicles are complex and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same sort of thing can happen. The cause is not always evident by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the common cause. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most people consider hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your hearing. This form of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
But in some cases, this kind of long-term, noise induced 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. When sound can’t, for some reason, be effectively carried to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound just fine.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can often look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like turning up the volume on your devices and not being able to hear very well in loud settings. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have a few unique properties that make it possible to diagnose. When hearing loss symptoms manifest like this, you can be fairly certain that it’s not typical noise related hearing loss. Though, naturally, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Difficulty 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 sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t make sense of them. This can go beyond the speech and apply to all kinds of sounds around you.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like someone is playing with the volume knob. If you’re dealing with these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this particular disorder. On an individual level, the reasons why you may develop auditory neuropathy might not be totally clear. This disorder can develop in both adults and children. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be compromised: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been compromised in a particular way.
- 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 gets damaged, your brain can’t receive the complete signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will seem off. When this happens, you might interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to differentiate.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is quite sure why. As a result, there isn’t a definitive way to counter auditory neuropathy. But you may be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you present specific close connections.
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 disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological conditions
- Preterm or premature birth
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- A low birth weight
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Various types of immune disorders
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Certain infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Certain medications (specifically improper use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
Limiting the risks as much as possible is generally a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart plan, particularly if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
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. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
Rather, we will typically suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized electrodes attached to specific places on your scalp and head. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us identify whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be evaluated with this diagnostic. A tiny microphone is placed 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 reacts. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will expose it.
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 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 with auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to enable you to hear better. For some people, hearing aids will work just fine! But because volume isn’t usually the problem, this isn’t usually the situation. 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 get around the issues. In these instances, a cochlear implant may be needed. Signals from your inner ear are transmitted directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has plenty of videos of individuals having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by increasing 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 training can be combined with any combination of these treatments if needed. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as possible
As with any hearing condition, prompt treatment can lead to better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just regular old hearing loss, it’s important 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 daily life! This can be extremely crucial for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.