Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? It’s not a fun situation. Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. And then, for some reason, you probably open your hood and take a look at your engine.
What’s strange is that you do this even if you have no clue how engines work. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Eventually, 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 starting, doesn’t mean you can know what’s wrong with it because automobiles are complex and computerized machines.
The same thing can occur at times with hearing loss. The cause is not always evident by the symptoms. There’s the common culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most people think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This type of hearing loss, called 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. While it’s less prevalent, hearing loss can in some cases be caused by a condition known as 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.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like cranking up the volume on your devices and not being able to hear well in loud settings. This can often make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and manage.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some specific symptoms that make discovering it easier. These presentations are pretty strong indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Obviously, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- 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.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t make sense of them. This can apply to all kinds of sounds, not just speech.
- An inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and unclear.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this specific condition. It may not be completely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both children and adults can experience this disorder. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Nerve damage: The hearing center of your brain receives sound from a particular nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will seem confused if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds might seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been damaged in a particular way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some people will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is quite certain why. That’s why there’s no exact science to combating it. Nevertheless, there are close connections which might show 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 all of these risk factors and still not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to develop auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Risk factors for children
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- 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
- Liver conditions that cause jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- A low birth weight
- Preterm or premature birth
Risk factors for adults
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
- Certain medications (especially incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- Immune diseases of various kinds
- Auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
Limiting the risks as much as possible is generally a smart plan. If risk factors are present, it might be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
During a typical hearing examination, you’ll most likely be given a pair of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of extremely limited use.
Instead, we will generally recommend one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During the course of this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to specific places on your head and scalp. Again, don’t be concerned, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions 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).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond 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 responds. If the inner ear is an issue, this data will expose it.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we run the applicable tests.
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 get it fixed. Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this disorder can be managed in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to allow you to hear better. Hearing aids will be a sufficient solution for some people. But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t typically the case. Due to this, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids won’t be able to get around the problems. It may be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these cases. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of individuals having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or diminution of certain frequencies can help you hear better. With a technology known as frequency modulation, that’s precisely what happens. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be put together with any combination of these treatments if needed. This will help you communicate using 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 result in better results.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as quickly as you can. 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 extremely critical for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.