Have you ever been in the middle of the roadway and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable situation. Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. And then, for whatever reason, you probably open your hood and have a look at your engine.
What’s funny is that you do this even though you have no clue how engines work. Maybe you think there’ll be a convenient handle you can turn or something. Inevitably, a tow truck will have to be called.
And a picture of the issue only becomes obvious when experts get a look at it. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t start) aren’t enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur in some cases with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily reveal what the cause is. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the common cause. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the cause.
What is auditory neuropathy?
Most people think of extremely loud noise like a rock concert or a jet engine when they think of hearing loss. This form of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s a bit more involved than basic noise damage.
But in some cases, this type of long-term, noise induced damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less common, can in some cases be the cause. When sound can’t, for some reason, be properly transmitted to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound perfectly fine.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first glimpse, not all that distinct from those symptoms associated with traditional hearing loss. You can’t hear well in noisy settings, you keep cranking the volume up on your television and other devices, that kind of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some unique symptoms that make diagnosing it easier. These presentations are pretty solid indicators that you aren’t confronting sensorineural hearing loss, but auditory neuropathy instead. Though, as always, you’ll be better informed by an official diagnosis from us.
The more distinctive symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Trouble understanding speech: Sometimes, you can’t understand what someone is saying even though the volume is normal. The words sound garbled or distorted.
- Sound fades in and out: The volume of sound seems to rise and fall like somebody is messing with the volume knob. 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. You can hear sounds but you simply can’t make sense of them. This can apply to all sorts of sounds, not just spoken words.
What triggers auditory neuropathy?
The underlying causes of this disorder can, in part, be defined by the symptoms. It may not be entirely clear why you have developed auditory neuropathy on a personal level. This disorder can develop in both adults and children. And, generally speaking, there are a couple of well defined possible causes:
- Damage to the nerves: There’s a nerve that transmits sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will sound unclear if there is damage to this nerve. When this happens, you might interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to discern.
- The cilia that transmit signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be passed to your brain in complete form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is really sure why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others may not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to preventing it. Still, there are close associations which may indicate that you’re at a higher risk of developing this disorder.
Keep in mind that even if you have all of these risk factors you still might 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 some risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- A low birth weight
- Other neurological disorders
- Liver disorders that lead to 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 lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Preterm or premature birth
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Various kinds of immune diseases
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
Limiting the risks as much as possible is generally a good idea. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good plan, especially if you do have risk factors.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
A typical hearing exam consists of 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 very much with auditory neuropathy.
One of the following two tests will usually be done instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is designed to determine how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. A tiny microphone is put just inside your ear canal. Then a series of tones and clicks will be played. Then your inner ear will be assessed to see how it responds. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be attached to certain spots on your scalp and head with this test. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes place specific emphasis on measuring how your brainwaves respond to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us determine whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (as with sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
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, in the same way as you bring your car to the auto technician to have it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But there are several ways to treat this disorder.
- Hearing aids: Even if you have auditory neuropathy, in moderate cases, hearing aids can boost sound enough to allow you to hear better. Hearing aids will be an adequate option for some individuals. That said, this is not typically the case, because, again, volume is almost never the issue. Hearing aids are usually used in combination with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some individuals, hearing aids won’t be able to get around the problems. It might be necessary to go with cochlear implants in these instances. 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, it’s possible to hear better by increasing or lowering certain frequencies. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: In some cases, any and all of these treatments could be combined with communication skills training. 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, prompt treatment can 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 make an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your daily life! This can be extremely critical for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.