Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable experience. You have to pull your car off the road. Then you likely open your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
Humorously, you still do this despite the fact that you have no knowledge of engines. Maybe you think there’ll be a convenient knob you can turn or something. Eventually, you have to call someone to tow your car to a mechanic.
And a picture of the issue only becomes apparent when mechanics diagnose it. That’s because cars are complicated, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur sometimes with hearing loss. The cause is not always obvious by the symptoms. There’s the normal culprit (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, it’s something else, something such as auditory neuropathy.
What is auditory neuropathy?
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 is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
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 condition where your ear and inner ear receive sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear very well in loud situations, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and manage.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some specific symptoms that make determining it easier. These presentations are rather solid indicators that you aren’t experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, naturally, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- The inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, you can’t understand what someone is saying even though the volume is just fine. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t make sense of them. This can apply to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like someone is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re experiencing these symptoms it may be a case of auditory neuropathy.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
The underlying causes of this disorder can, in part, be defined by the symptoms. On a personal level, the reasons why you might develop auditory neuropathy might not be totally clear. This disorder can develop in both adults and children. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- Damage to the cilia that transmit signals to the brain: If these fragile hairs in your inner ear become damaged in a specific way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be passed on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain gets sound from a specific nerve in your ear. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain can’t get the full signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will seem wrong. When this happens, you may interpret sounds as jumbled, unclear, or too quiet to differentiate.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really certain why some individuals will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. Nevertheless, there are close connections which may indicate that you’re at a higher risk of developing this disorder.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not experience auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to experience auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Risk factors for children
Here are some risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Preterm or premature birth
- 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
- A low birth weight
- Other neurological disorders
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
Adult risk factors
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Specific infectious diseases, like mumps
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Various kinds of immune diseases
- Certain medications (specifically incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
In general, it’s a smart idea to minimize these risks as much as you can. If risk factors are there, it may be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a normal hearing assessment, you’ll likely be given a set of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help very much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will typically suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be fastened to specific places on your head and scalp with this test. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with specific attention to how those brainwaves react to sound. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us identify whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be checked with this diagnostic. A little microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of clicks and tones. The diagnostic device will then measure how well your inner ear responds to those tones and clicks. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the issue.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more effective once we do the applicable tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, in the same way as you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But there are several ways to manage this disorder.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in milder cases, hearing aids can amplify sound enough to enable you to hear better. Hearing aids will be an adequate solution for some individuals. But because volume isn’t usually the problem, this isn’t normally the situation. As a result, hearing aids are usually combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids will not be able to solve the problems. It may be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these cases. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. They’re pretty amazing! (And you can watch many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, amplification or reduction of specific 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: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if necessary. This will allow you to work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
As with any hearing condition, timely treatment can lead to better outcomes.
So it’s essential to get your hearing loss treated as soon as possible whether it’s the common form or auditory neuropathy. You’ll be able to go 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 lot of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.