Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the road? That really stinks! You have to pull your car off the road. Then you probably pop your hood and have a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s funny is that you do this even if you have no clue how engines work. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Inevitably, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the problem only becomes obvious when mechanics diagnose it. Just because the car isn’t starting, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because automobiles are complicated and computerized machines.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can happen. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically reveal what the cause is. There’s the usual cause (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
Most people think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they consider hearing loss. This form of hearing loss, called sensorineural hearing loss is somewhat more complex than that, but you get the point.
But in some cases, this kind of long-term, noise induced damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can sometimes be the cause. This is a hearing condition where your ear and inner ear collect sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully convey those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms associated with auditory neuropathy are, at first look, not all that dissimilar from those symptoms associated with conventional hearing loss. Things like cranking the volume up on your devices and not being able to hear well in loud environments. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and treat.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique properties that make it possible to identify. These presentations are pretty solid indicators that you aren’t experiencing sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, naturally, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are some of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like someone is messing with the volume knob inside of your head! This could be a sign that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is completely normal, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can go beyond the speech and pertain to all types of sounds around you.
- Difficulty understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what a person is saying even though the volume is normal. The words sound garbled or distorted.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
The underlying causes of this disorder can, in part, be defined by its symptoms. It may not be very clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. Both children and adults can experience this disorder. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be damaged: If these little hairs inside of your inner ear become damaged in a particular way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain receives sound from a specific nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will seem confused if there is damage to this nerve. When this takes place, you may interpret sounds as garbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to discern.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while other people won’t and no one is quite sure why. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to preventing it. However, there are close connections which might show that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this disorder.
Bear in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical probability of developing this disorder.
Risk factors for children
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Other neurological disorders
- Preterm or premature birth
- Liver disorders that cause jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A low birth weight
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Immune diseases of various kinds
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Certain infectious diseases, like mumps
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
Generally, it’s a good idea to minimize these risks as much as you can. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a smart plan, especially if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A standard hearing exam involves listening to tones with a set of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. When you have auditory neuropathy, that test will be of extremely minimal use.
Rather, we will usually recommend one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea react to sound stimuli. We will put a little microphone just inside your ear canal. Then a series of clicks and tones will be played. The diagnostic device will then measure how well your inner ear reacts to those tones and clicks. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will reveal it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized electrodes attached to specific places on your scalp and head. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes measure your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves respond 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).
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we do the applicable tests.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you take your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this disorder can be treated in a few 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 an adequate option for some people. Having said that, this is not generally the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the problem. Hearing aids are often used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids will not be able to get around the issues. It may be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these cases. Signals from your inner ear are transmitted directly to your brain with this implant. They’re quite amazing! (And you can watch all kinds of YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or reducing specific frequencies. That’s what happens with a technology called frequency modulation. This strategy often uses devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises 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
Getting your disorder treated right away will, as with any hearing disorder, lead to better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible. 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 lot of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.