Have you ever had your car break down in the middle of the road? It’s not an enjoyable situation. Your car has to be safely pulled to the side of the road. Then you 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 clue how engines work. Perhaps you think there’ll be a handy knob you can turn or something. Inevitably, a tow truck will have to be called.
And a picture of the issue only becomes apparent when mechanics get a look at it. Just because the car isn’t moving, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because vehicles are complicated and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same sort of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically identify what the underlying cause is. There’s the normal cause (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most individuals think of really loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This form of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the point.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something else besides noise damage. While it’s less common, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for some reason, be properly sent to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound perfectly fine.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first glimpse, not all that dissimilar from those symptoms associated with traditional hearing loss. Things like cranking the volume up on your devices and not being able to hear very well in loud settings. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some distinctive symptoms that make recognizing it easier. These presentations are pretty strong indicators that you aren’t dealing with sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, as always, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: Once again, this isn’t an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you simply can’t understand them. This can apply to all kinds of sounds, not just speech.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like someone is messing with the volume knob. If you’re experiencing these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Difficulty understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what a person is saying even though the volume is normal. Words are confused and unclear.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
The root causes of this disorder can, in part, be defined by its symptoms. It might not be very clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. This condition 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 sent to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a specific way.
- Damage to the nerves: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain doesn’t receive the complete signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will sound off. Sounds might seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really certain why some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. As a result, there isn’t a definitive way to counter auditory neuropathy. Nevertheless, there are close associations which may reveal that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this condition.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you might have every single one of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of experiencing this condition.
Children’s risk factors
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Liver disorders that cause jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- Other neurological conditions
- Preterm or premature birth
- A low birth weight
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Some medications (specifically improper use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- Immune disorders of various kinds
- Specific infectious diseases, like mumps
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
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 standard hearing examination, you’ll most likely be given a set of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help very much with auditory neuropathy.
One of the following two tests will usually be done instead:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During the course of this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized electrodes attached to specific spots on your head and scalp. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us identify whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. We will put a little microphone just inside your ear canal. Then a battery of clicks and tones will be played. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it reacts. 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, just like you bring your car to the auto technician to have it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this condition can be treated in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some less severe 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 individuals. But because volume isn’t usually the issue, this isn’t usually 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 problem for most individuals. It might be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these cases. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. They’re quite amazing! (And you can find many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or reduction of certain frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are used in this approach.
- Communication skills training: In some cases, any and all of these treatments could 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.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
Getting your condition treated punctually will, as with any hearing condition, produce better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just regular old hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as soon as you can. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life after you make an appointment and get treated. This can be extremely critical for children, who experience a great deal of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.