Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? It’s not a fun experience. You have to pull your car off the road. Then you most likely open your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s funny is that you do this even if you have no idea how engines work. Maybe you think there’ll be a handy knob you can turn or something. Ultimately, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And it’s only when the mechanics check out things that you get an understanding of the issue. Just because the car is not moving, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because vehicles are complicated and computerized machines.
The same thing can happen in some cases with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically reveal what the underlying cause is. There’s the normal culprit (noise-related 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 damages your hearing. This kind of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complex than that, but you get the idea.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something other than noise damage. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. This is a hearing condition where your ear and inner ear receive sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully convey 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. You can’t hear well in noisy situations, you keep turning up the volume on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. This can often make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and treat.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have a few unique properties that make it possible to identify. These presentations are rather strong indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, nothing can replace getting a real-time diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are some of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to go up and down like somebody is playing with the volume knob. This could be an indication that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is completely normal, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t make sense of them. This can apply to all kinds of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are unclear and muddled sounding.
Some causes 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 develop auditory neuropathy may not be totally clear. This disorder can develop in both children and adults. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing portion of your brain gets sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain can’t receive the full signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will sound wrong. Sounds may seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is really sure why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. As a result, there isn’t a definitive way to counter auditory neuropathy. But you might be at a higher risk of developing auditory neuropathy if you present particular close associations.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to develop auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
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)
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- A low birth weight
- Liver conditions that lead to jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- Other neurological conditions
- 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
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- Various types of immune diseases
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
In general, it’s a smart idea to minimize these risks as much as you can. If risk factors are present, it might be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A typical hearing test involves listening to tones with a pair 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 limited use.
One of the following two tests will usually be done instead:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific spots 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 put particular focus on tracking how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us identify whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. A little microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of tones and clicks. The diagnostic device will then measure how well your inner ear responds to those tones and clicks. If the inner ear is an issue, this data will expose it.
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 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. In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this disorder can be managed in a few 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 a sufficient solution for some people. That said, this is not usually the case, because, once again, volume is almost never the issue. As a result, hearing aids are usually combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problems. It might be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these cases. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and carries them directly to your brain. They’re quite amazing! (And you can watch many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by increasing or reducing certain frequencies. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s precisely what happens. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments might be combined with communication skills exercises. This will help you communicate with the hearing you have and work around your symptoms instead of treating them.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as you can
As with any hearing condition, timely 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 you can. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you make an appointment and get treated. Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.