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 off the road. Then you most likely 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 totally obvious. Eventually, you have to call somebody to tow your car to a garage.
And a picture of the problem only becomes obvious when mechanics get a look at it. That’s because cars are intricate, there are so many moving pieces and computerized software that the symptoms (your car that won’t move) aren’t enough to tell you what’s wrong.
The same thing can occur sometimes with hearing loss. The symptom itself doesn’t automatically identify what the underlying cause is. Sure, noise-related hearing loss is the common culprit. But in some cases, it’s something else, something like auditory neuropathy.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most people consider hearing loss, they think of loud concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that harms your ability to hear. This type of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s a bit more involved than simple noise damage.
But sometimes, this sort of long-term, noise induced damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition known as auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can sometimes be the cause. This is a hearing disorder where your ear and inner ear receive sounds just fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transmit those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms related to auditory neuropathy are, at first glance, not all that distinct from those symptoms linked to traditional hearing loss. You can’t hear very well in loud settings, you keep turning the volume up on your television and other devices, that sort of thing. That’s why diagnosing auditory neuropathy can be so challenging.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some distinctive symptoms that make identifying it easier. These presentations are pretty strong indicators that you aren’t dealing with sensorineural hearing loss, but with auditory neuropathy instead. Though, as always, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like somebody is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re experiencing these symptoms it may be a case of 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 understand them. This can pertain to all kinds of sounds, not just spoken words.
- An inability to distinguish words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t understand what’s being said. Words are confused and unclear.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
The underlying causes of this condition can, in part, be explained by the symptoms. On an individual level, the reasons why you might develop auditory neuropathy may not be entirely clear. This condition can develop in both children and adults. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be compromised: If these little hairs in your inner ear become damaged in a particular way, the sound your ear detects can’t really be sent on to your brain, at least, not in its complete form.
- Damage to the nerves: The hearing center of your brain gets sound from a specific nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain tries to “interpret” will seem confused if there is damage to this nerve. When this happens, you may interpret sounds as garbled, unclear, or too quiet to differentiate.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
Some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others won’t and no one is quite certain why. As a result, there isn’t a tried and true way to counter auditory neuropathy. Nevertheless, there are close associations which may reveal that you’re at a higher risk of experiencing this disorder.
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.
Children’s risk factors
Here are some 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)
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Liver disorders that lead to jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- A low birth weight
- Preterm or premature birth
- Other neurological conditions
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of experiencing auditory neuropathy include:
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Various kinds of immune diseases
- Some medications (specifically improper use of medications that can cause hearing issues)
- Specific infectious diseases, such as mumps
Generally, it’s a good idea to minimize these risks as much as you can. If risk factors are present, it may be a good idea to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a typical hearing assessment, you’ll likely be given a pair of headphones and be asked to raise your hand when you hear a tone. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
One of the following two tests will normally be used instead:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: This diagnostic is made to measure how well your inner ear and cochlea respond to sound stimuli. A little microphone is placed just inside your ear canal. Then, we will play a series of tones and clicks. The diagnostic device will then measure how well your inner ear responds to those tones and clicks. The data will help identify whether the inner ear is the issue.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized electrodes attached to certain spots on your scalp and head. Again, don’t worry, there’s nothing painful or uncomfortable about this test. These electrodes measure 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.
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we do the applicable tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you bring your car to the mechanic to get it fixed. Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But there are a few ways to treat this disorder.
- Hearing aids: In some less severe cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even with auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be a sufficient solution for some people. But because volume isn’t usually the problem, this isn’t usually the situation. Due to this, hearing aids are often combined with other therapy and treatment options.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids will not be able to solve the issues. In these instances, a cochlear implant might be necessary. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and carries them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of people having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, amplification or reduction of certain frequencies can help you hear better. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are utilized in this approach.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills exercises can be combined with any combination of these treatments if needed. 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 you can
As with any hearing condition, prompt treatment can result in better results.
So if you suspect you have auditory neuropathy, or even just normal hearing loss, it’s essential to get treatment as soon as possible. The sooner you schedule an appointment, the more quickly you’ll be able to hear better, and get back to your daily life! This can be especially crucial for children, who experience a lot of cognitive development and linguistic growth during their early years.