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 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. Perhaps you think there’ll be a handy handle you can turn or something. Eventually, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And it’s only when the mechanics get a look at things that you get an understanding of the problem. That’s because cars are complex, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t start) aren’t enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
The same thing can happen at times with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily identify what the underlying cause is. There’s the common cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most individuals think of extremely loud noise such as a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than simple noise damage.
But sometimes, this kind of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less prevalent, hearing loss can in some cases be caused by a condition called auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be effectively transmitted to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound perfectly fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can often look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear very well in noisy situations, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so difficult.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some specific symptoms that make discovering it easier. When hearing loss symptoms present in this way, you can be pretty sure that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. Of course, nothing can replace getting a real-time diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are some of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like someone is messing with the volume knob. This could be an indication 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 just fine, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t understand them. This can go beyond the spoken word and apply to all kinds of sounds around you.
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what someone is saying even though the volume is just fine. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the root causes behind this particular disorder. On an individual level, the reasons why you might develop auditory neuropathy may not be completely clear. Both children and adults can experience this condition. And, broadly speaking, there are a couple of well described possible causes:
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be compromised: If these fragile hairs in your inner ear become compromised in a particular 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 particular nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will sound confused if there is damage to this nerve. When this occurs, you may interpret sounds as garbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to differentiate.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really certain why some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. However, there are close connections which may reveal that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this condition.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still may or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to experience auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Risk factors for children
Here are a few risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological disorders
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- A low birth weight
Risk factors for adults
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Family history of hearing conditions, including auditory neuropathy
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Specific infectious diseases, like mumps
- Various types of immune diseases
Limiting the risks as much as possible is generally a smart plan. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good plan, especially if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A standard hearing exam involves listening to tones with a pair of headphones and raising a hand depending on what side you hear the tone on. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will generally recommend one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed 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 tones and clicks will be played. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it responds. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During the course of this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized 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 place specific focus on tracking how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. Whether you’re dealing with sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be established by the quality of your brainwaves.
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more successfully diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, just like 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 this condition can be managed in a few 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. For some individuals, hearing aids will work just fine! But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t typically the case. Hearing aids are often used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the issue for most people. In these situations, a cochlear implant might be needed. Signals from your inner ear are sent directly to your brain with this implant. The internet has lots of videos of individuals having success with these amazing devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or reducing specific frequencies. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s exactly what occurs. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this approach.
- Communication skills training: In some cases, any and all of these treatments might be combined with communication skills exercises. This will help you communicate with the hearing you have and work around your symptoms instead of treating them.
It’s best to get treatment as soon as possible
Getting your condition treated promptly 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 daily life! Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.