Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the highway? 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 though you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be obvious. Inevitably, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the issue only becomes obvious when experts diagnose it. That’s because cars are complex, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same kind of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily reveal what the underlying cause is. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the usual cause. But in some cases, it’s something else, something such as auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most individuals think about hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your ability to hear. This type of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s a bit more involved than basic noise damage.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be the result of something other than noise damage. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. This is a hearing condition in which your ear and inner ear receive sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can often look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like turning the volume up on your devices and not being able to hear well in loud settings. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
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 somebody is messing with the volume knob inside of your head! This could be an indication that you’re experiencing auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Again, this is not an issue with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is just fine, the issue is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t make sense of them. This can go beyond the speech and pertain to all kinds of sounds around you.
- An inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. The words sound garbled or distorted.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be explained, in part, by the root causes behind this specific disorder. It might not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, generally speaking:
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain can’t receive the complete signal, and consequently, the sounds it “interprets” will seem wrong. Sounds may seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this occurs.
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in full form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is quite sure why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. However, there are close associations which might show that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this disorder.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you may have all of these risk factors and still not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical probability of developing this disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Here are a few risk factors that will raise the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Liver conditions that lead to jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- A low birth weight
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological disorders
Adult risk factors
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Some medications (especially improper use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
- Immune disorders of various types
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
Generally, it’s a good idea to minimize 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 normal hearing assessment, you’ll most likely be given a pair of headphones and be told to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will generally suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be fastened to specific places on your scalp and head with this test. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes put particular emphasis on measuring how your brainwaves respond to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us determine whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be checked with this diagnostic. A tiny microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of clicks and tones. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it responds. 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.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
So, just like you bring your car to the mechanic to have it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But there are a few ways to manage this disorder.
- Hearing aids: In some moderate cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. For some individuals, hearing aids will work perfectly fine! Having said that, this is not typically 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: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the issue for most individuals. It might be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these situations. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. They’re quite amazing! (And you can watch all kinds of YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or diminution of certain frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what occurs with a technology known as frequency modulation. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are used in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments may be combined with communication skills training. This will let you work with whatever level of hearing you have to communicate better.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as possible
Getting your condition treated right away will, as with any hearing disorder, produce 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. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your everyday life! This can be especially critical for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.