Have you ever had your car break down in the middle of the highway? That really stinks! 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.
What’s funny is that you do this even if you have no idea how engines work. Maybe whatever is wrong will be obvious. Inevitably, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the issue only becomes obvious when experts get a look at it. Just because the car is not moving, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because automobiles are complex and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same sort of thing can happen. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily identify what the underlying cause is. There’s the usual culprit (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most people think of really loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This form of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
But sometimes, this type of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less prevalent, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition called auditory neuropathy. This is a hearing disorder where your ear and inner ear collect sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first glimpse, not all that dissimilar from those symptoms associated with conventional hearing loss. Things like turning the volume up on your devices and not being capable of hearing well in loud settings. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
However, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to identify. These presentations are rather solid indicators that you aren’t experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, as always, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
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. This could be a sign that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- An inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and unclear.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you simply can’t understand them. This can go beyond the spoken word and pertain to all types of sounds around you.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific disorder. It may not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. Both adults and children can develop this condition. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: If these tiny hairs inside of your inner ear become damaged in a specific way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be passed on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain gets sound from a specific nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will sound unclear if there is damage to this nerve. When this occurs, you might interpret sounds as jumbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to discern.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is quite certain why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. Still, there are close connections which may reveal that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this disorder.
It should be noted that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you may have every single one of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical probability of experiencing this condition.
Children’s risk factors
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A low birth weight
- Other neurological disorders
- Preterm or premature birth
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Immune disorders of various types
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
Limiting the risks as much as possible is always a smart plan. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart idea, especially if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A typical hearing exam consists of listening to tones with a pair of headphones and raising a hand depending on which side you hear the tone on. That test won’t help very much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will generally suggest one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. We will put a little microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of tones and clicks. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it reacts. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the problem.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific places on your head and scalp with this test. 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 react to sound. Whether you’re experiencing sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be established 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.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
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 several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some moderate cases, hearing aids will be able to provide the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be an adequate option for some individuals. But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t typically the situation. Hearing aids are often used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the issue for most people. In these instances, a cochlear implant might be required. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. They’re quite amazing! (And you can find many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by increasing or lowering certain frequencies. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. This approach often utilizes devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments may be combined with communication skills exercises. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you get treatment, the better
Getting your disorder treated right away will, as with any hearing condition, produce better outcomes.
So it’s essential to get your hearing loss treated right away whether it’s the common form or auditory neuropathy. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your daily life! Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.