Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? That really stinks! Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. Then you probably open your hood and take a look at the engine. Who knows why?
What’s strange is that you do this even if you have no idea how engines work. Perhaps you think there’ll be a convenient handle you can turn or something. Ultimately, a tow truck will need to be called.
And it’s only when the experts get a look at things that you get a picture of the problem. That’s because cars are complicated, 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.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can occur. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily identify what the underlying cause is. 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 think about hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your hearing. This kind of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the point.
But in some cases, this type of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. While it’s less common, hearing loss can in some cases be caused by a condition called auditory neuropathy. This is a hearing disorder where your ear and inner ear receive sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like turning the volume up on your devices and not being capable of hearing very well in loud settings. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and treat.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some unique symptoms that make diagnosing it easier. When hearing loss symptoms manifest in this way, you can be pretty sure that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. Though, as always, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Difficulty understanding speech: Sometimes, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and unclear.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Again, this isn’t 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 understand them. This can go beyond the speech and apply to all kinds of sounds around you.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like somebody is messing with the volume knob. If you’re experiencing these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the root causes behind this specific condition. On an individual level, the reasons why you may develop auditory neuropathy might not be entirely clear. Both children and adults can experience this condition. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be compromised: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a particular way.
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain doesn’t get the complete signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will seem wrong. When this occurs, you may interpret sounds as jumbled, indecipherable, or too quiet to discern.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is really sure why some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. Nevertheless, there are close associations which might show that you’re at a higher risk of developing this condition.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors are not guarantees, you may have all of these risk factors and not experience auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors present, the higher your statistical probability of developing this disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Here are some risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Liver conditions that cause jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- A low birth weight
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological disorders
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Preterm or premature birth
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Immune disorders of various kinds
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
- Certain medications (especially incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
In general, it’s a good idea to minimize these risks as much as possible. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good idea, particularly if you do have risk factors.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
A standard hearing test involves listening to tones with a pair of headphones and raising a hand depending on which side you hear the tone on. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
Instead, we will generally suggest one of two tests:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to specific spots on your head and scalp. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t worry. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with particular attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. Whether you’re experiencing sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be established by the quality of your brainwaves.
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The response of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be evaluated with this diagnostic. We will put a small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of clicks and tones. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it reacts. The data will help determine whether the inner ear is the issue.
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment in the same way that you take your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. Generally speaking, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this disorder can be treated in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: Even with 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 isn’t typically the case, because, once again, volume is virtually never the issue. Hearing aids are usually used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be able to solve the issue for most individuals. It may be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these situations. Signals from your inner ear are sent 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, amplification or reduction of certain frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what happens with a technology known as frequency modulation. This approach often makes use of devices that are, essentially, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments could be combined with communication skills exercises. 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
As with any hearing disorder, timely treatment can lead to better outcomes.
So if you think you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as quickly as you can. You’ll be able to go back to hearing better and enjoying your life once you schedule an appointment and get treated. This can be especially critical for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.