Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. And then, for some reason, you probably pop your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s funny is that you do this even if you have no clue how engines work. Perhaps you think there’ll be a handy knob you can turn or something. Inevitably, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the problem only becomes apparent 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 vehicles are complex and computerized machines.
The same thing can occur at times with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily reveal what the underlying cause is. There’s the usual culprit (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most people think about hearing loss, they think of loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your ability to hear. This form of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be the result of something other than noise damage. While it’s less prevalent, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be correctly transmitted to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound just fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first look, not all that distinct from those symptoms linked to traditional hearing loss. You can’t hear well in loud situations, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique properties that make it possible to identify. These presentations are pretty solid indicators that you aren’t dealing with sensorineural hearing loss, but with auditory neuropathy instead. Though, as always, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Again, this is not 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 kinds of sounds around you.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what a person is saying even though the volume is normal. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like someone is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! This could be a sign that you’re experiencing auditory neuropathy.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the root causes behind this particular condition. It may not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both children and adults can develop this disorder. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be damaged: If these tiny hairs in your inner ear become compromised in a particular way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its full form.
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain doesn’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.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is really certain why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to preventing it. Still, there are close associations which may indicate that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this disorder.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors are not guarantees, you may have all of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical probability of developing this condition.
Children’s risk factors
Here are a few risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- 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
- Other neurological conditions
- Preterm or premature birth
- A low birth weight
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
Adult risk factors
Here are a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
- Various types of immune diseases
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Specific infectious diseases, like mumps
Minimizing the risks as much as you can is generally a smart plan. If risk factors are there, it might be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A standard 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 extremely limited use.
One of the following two tests will typically be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be tested 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 assessed to see how it reacts. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific spots on your head and scalp with this test. Again, don’t be concerned, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes put specific focus on tracking how your brainwaves respond to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us identify whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
Once we run the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be managed in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some milder cases, hearing aids will be able to provide the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even with auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be a sufficient option for some people. But because volume isn’t usually the problem, this isn’t normally the situation. Hearing aids are often used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids will not be able to solve the issues. It might be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these cases. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of people having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or diminution of specific frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s precisely what occurs. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this approach.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments might be combined with communication skills training. This will help you communicate using the hearing you have and work around your symptoms instead of treating them.
The sooner you get treatment, the better
Getting your condition treated right away will, as with any hearing disorder, produce better outcomes.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as soon as you can. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your everyday life! Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.