Have you ever had your car break down in the middle of the road? That really stinks! You have to pull your car safely to the side of the road. And then, for some reason, you probably pop your hood and have a look at your engine.
What’s strange is that you do this even if you have no idea how engines work. Maybe whatever is wrong will be obvious. Inevitably, a tow truck will need to be called.
And it’s only when the professionals check out things that you get an understanding of the issue. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t start) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
The same thing can happen in some cases with hearing loss. The cause is not always obvious by the symptoms. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the common culprit. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most people consider hearing loss, they think of loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your ability to hear. This kind 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. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less common, can sometimes be the cause. This is a hearing condition where your ear and inner ear receive sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully convey 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 turning the volume up on your devices and not being able to hear very well in loud settings. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and manage.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some specific symptoms that make identifying it easier. When hearing loss symptoms manifest like this, 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 distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Difficulty understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what somebody is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Once again, this is not an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you simply can’t make sense of them. This can go beyond the spoken word and pertain to all types of sounds around you.
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like somebody is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! This could be an indication that you’re experiencing auditory neuropathy.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
The root causes of this disorder can, in part, be explained by its symptoms. It might not be very clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on an individual level. Both adults and children can develop this condition. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing portion of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain can’t receive the complete signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will sound off. When this happens, you might interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to discern.
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be compromised: If these little hairs in your inner ear become damaged in a particular way, the sound your ear senses can’t really be passed on to your brain, at least, not in its full form.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
Some people will develop auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is really sure why. That’s why there’s no exact science to combating it. Nevertheless, there are close connections which may show that you’re at a higher risk of developing this condition.
It should be noted that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you might have all of these risk factors and still not experience 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:
- A low birth weight
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- Liver conditions that lead to jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological conditions
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
Risk factors for adults
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- Auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
- Various types of immune disorders
- Some medications (specifically incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
In general, it’s a good idea to limit these risks as much as possible. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good plan, particularly if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a typical hearing assessment, you’ll likely be given a set of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
One of the following two tests will normally be done instead:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to specific places on your scalp and head with this test. 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 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 measure how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. A little microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of clicks and tones. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it reacts. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will expose it.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we run the appropriate tests.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So, just like you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be managed in several 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 option for some individuals. Having said that, this is not typically the case, because, once again, volume is almost never the issue. Hearing aids are often used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids won’t be able to solve the issues. In these cases, a cochlear implant could be needed. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. They’re rather 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 boosting or lowering specific frequencies. 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 situations, any and all of these treatments may 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.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as you can
As with any hearing disorder, timely treatment can result in better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just ordinary hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as quickly as possible. 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 growth during their early years.