Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable experience. Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. Then you most likely open your hood and take a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s strange is that you do this even though you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Eventually, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And a picture of the problem only becomes apparent when mechanics get a look at it. Just because the car isn’t starting, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because vehicles are complex and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily identify what the underlying cause is. There’s the usual culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
What is auditory neuropathy?
When most people consider hearing loss, they think of noisy 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 complex than that, but you get the point.
But sometimes, this kind of long-term, noise related damage is not 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 correctly sent to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound just fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can often look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear well in noisy situations, you keep cranking the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and manage.
However, auditory neuropathy does have a few unique features that make it possible to diagnose. When hearing loss symptoms manifest in this way, you can be fairly certain that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. Obviously, nothing can replace getting a real-time diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like someone is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re encountering these symptoms it might be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Again, this isn’t an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you simply can’t understand them. This can go beyond the spoken word and apply 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 condition. It might not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both children and adults can develop this disorder. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing center of your brain gets sound from a specific nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will sound unclear if there is damage to this nerve. When this takes place, you might interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to discern.
- The cilia that deliver signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a specific way.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is really sure why. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. Still, there are close associations which may show that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this condition.
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 you’re more statistically likely to develop auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Children’s risk factors
Here are a few risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Liver disorders that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- A low birth weight
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological disorders
- 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
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Immune disorders of various types
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
In general, it’s a good idea to limit these risks as much as possible. If risk factors are there, it might be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A standard hearing test consists of 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.
Rather, we will typically suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be connected to certain spots on your scalp and head with this test. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with specific 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.
- 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 small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of tones and clicks will be played. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it reacts. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
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 you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be managed in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some milder cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be a sufficient solution for some individuals. But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t typically the case. Hearing aids are often used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids won’t be able to solve the problems. In these situations, 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 people having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by increasing or reducing certain frequencies. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what happens. This strategy frequently uses devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if necessary. This will help you communicate using 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 lead to better outcomes.
So it’s important to get your hearing loss treated as soon as possible whether it’s the ordinary 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! This can be especially crucial for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.