Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? That really stinks! 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 clue how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Ultimately, a tow truck will have to be called.
And it’s only when the professionals get a look at things that you get a picture of the issue. Just because the car isn’t starting, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because automobiles are complicated and computerized machines.
The same thing can happen at times with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always obvious by the symptoms. There’s the common culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
What is auditory neuropathy?
When most people consider hearing loss, they think of noisy 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 basic noise damage.
But sometimes, long-term hearing loss can be caused by something else besides noise damage. While it’s less common, hearing loss can sometimes be caused by a condition called auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for some reason, be effectively carried to your brain even though your ear is receiving that sound just fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms associated with auditory neuropathy are, at first look, not all that distinct from those symptoms associated with conventional hearing loss. You can’t hear well in noisy situations, you keep cranking up the volume 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 distinctive symptoms that make recognizing it easier. These presentations are pretty solid indicators that you aren’t dealing with sensorineural hearing loss, but with auditory neuropathy instead. Of course, nothing can replace getting an accurate diagnosis from us about your hearing loss.
Here are a few of the more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy:
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Again, this is not 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 make sense of them. This can pertain to all kinds of sounds, not just spoken words.
- Sound fades in and out: Maybe it feels like someone is playing with the volume knob in your head! This could be a sign that you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy.
- An inability to make out words: Sometimes, you can’t make out what someone is saying even though the volume is normal. Words are confused and unclear.
Some triggers of auditory neuropathy
These symptoms can be articulated, in part, by the root causes behind this particular disorder. On a personal level, the reasons why you might experience auditory neuropathy might not be completely clear. This condition can develop in both adults and children. And there are a couple of well defined possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Nerve damage: The hearing portion of your brain receives sound from a particular nerve in your ear. The sounds that the brain attempts to “interpret” will seem unclear if there is damage to this nerve. Sounds may seem jumbled or too quiet to hear when this happens.
- Damage to the cilia that send signals to the brain: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in complete form once these little fragile hairs have been damaged in a particular way.
Risk factors of auditory neuropathy
No one is really sure why some people will develop auditory neuropathy while others may not. That’s why there isn’t an exact science to combating it. Nevertheless, there are close associations which may indicate that you’re at a higher risk of developing this condition.
It should be noted that these risk factors aren’t guarantees, you might have all of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But you’re more statistically likely to experience 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:
- Other neurological conditions
- A lack of oxygen during birth or before labor begins
- Liver conditions that result in jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
- A low birth weight
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
Adult risk factors
For adults, risk factors that raise your likelihood of developing auditory neuropathy include:
- Immune diseases of various kinds
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
- Overuse of medications that cause hearing problems
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
Limiting the risks as much as you can is generally a good idea. If risk factors are present, it may be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
During a standard hearing assessment, you’ll likely be given a set 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 normally be done 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 put 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 reveal it.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have special electrodes attached to specific spots on your scalp and head. This test isn’t painful or uncomfortable in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes track your brainwaves, with specific attention to how those brainwaves respond to sound. 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).
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we do the appropriate tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So, just like you bring your car to the auto technician to get it fixed, you can bring your ears to us for treatment! Auditory neuropathy generally has no cure. But this disorder can be treated in a few 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 with auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be a sufficient option for some people. But because volume isn’t usually 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 problem for most individuals. It might be necessary to opt for cochlear implants in these instances. This implant, essentially, takes the signals from your inner ear and conveys them directly to your brain. They’re quite amazing! (And you can find all kinds of YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by increasing or reducing certain frequencies. That’s what happens with a technology known as frequency modulation. This approach often uses devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: In some situations, 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.
The sooner you receive treatment, the better
Getting your disorder treated promptly will, as with any hearing disorder, lead to better outcomes.
So it’s important to get your hearing loss treated as soon as possible whether it’s the ordinary form or auditory neuropathy. You’ll be able to get back to hearing better and enjoying your life after you make an appointment and get treated. Children, who experience a great deal of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.