Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the road? It’s not an enjoyable situation. Your car has to be safely pulled to the side of the road. And then, for some reason, you probably pop your hood and have a look at your engine.
Humorously, you still do this despite the fact that you have no knowledge of engines. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Sooner or later, you have to call someone to tow your car to a mechanic.
And a picture of the problem only becomes obvious when mechanics diagnose it. That’s because cars are complicated, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) 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 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 individuals think about hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your hearing. 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, this sort of long-term, noise induced damage is not the cause of hearing loss. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. This is a hearing condition in which your ear and inner ear collect sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer those sounds to your brain.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional noise related hearing loss can sometimes look very much like those of auditory neuropathy. You can’t hear well in noisy situations, you keep cranking the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. This can frequently make auditory neuropathy difficult to diagnose and manage.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some unique symptoms that make recognizing it easier. When hearing loss symptoms manifest like this, you can be fairly certain that it’s not typical 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:
- The inability to make out words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is just fine, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
- 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 encountering these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not a problem with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can pertain to all sorts of sounds, not just speech.
What causes auditory neuropathy?
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the underlying causes behind this particular condition. On an individual level, the reasons why you may experience auditory neuropathy might not be completely clear. Both children and adults can experience this condition. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- 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 fragile hairs have been damaged in a particular way.
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain gets sound from a specific nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will sound unclear if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds might seem garbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is quite certain why some individuals will develop auditory neuropathy while others might not. Because of this, there isn’t a definitive way to prevent auditory neuropathy. Still, there are close associations 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 may or may not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to develop auditory neuropathy the more risk factors you have.
Children’s risk factors
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- Other neurological conditions
- A low birth weight
- Liver conditions that cause jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
Risk factors for adults
For adults, risk factors that increase your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing issues
- Auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that run in the family
- Specific infectious diseases, like mumps
- Various types of immune diseases
In general, it’s a smart plan to minimize these risks as much as possible. If risk factors are there, it might be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
Diagnosing auditory neuropathy
During a standard hearing examination, you’ll most likely be given a pair of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of extremely minimal use.
One of the following two tests will usually be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. We will put a small microphone just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play an array of clicks and tones. Then your inner ear will be measured to see how it reacts. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will expose it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to specific spots on your scalp and head. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or unpleasant about this test. These electrodes place particular emphasis on tracking how your brainwaves respond to sound stimuli. The quality of your brainwave responses will help us determine whether your hearing issues reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (such as auditory neuropathy).
Once we run the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, just like you bring your car to the auto technician to have it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this condition can be managed in several possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some less severe cases, hearing aids will be able to provide the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be an adequate solution for some people. But because volume usually isn’t the issue, this isn’t typically the situation. Due to this, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- Cochlear implant: Hearing aids won’t be capable of solving the problem for most people. In these situations, a cochlear implant might be necessary. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. They’re quite amazing! (And you can find many 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 happens with a technology known as frequency modulation. Essentially, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this approach.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, any and all of these treatments could be combined with communication skills exercises. This will allow you to 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 condition, timely treatment can produce better outcomes.
So it’s essential to get your hearing loss treated right away whether it’s the ordinary 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 everyday life! This can be especially critical for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic expansion during their early years.