Have you ever had your vehicle break down in the middle of the highway? It’s not an enjoyable experience. You have to pull your car off the road. And then, for whatever reason, you probably open your hood and have a look at your engine.
What’s strange is that you do this even if you have no clue how engines work. Perhaps whatever is wrong will be obvious. Eventually, you have to call someone to tow your car to a garage.
And it’s only when the experts check out things that you get an understanding of the problem. Just because the car is not moving, doesn’t mean you can tell what’s wrong with it because cars are complicated and computerized machines.
The same thing can happen sometimes with hearing loss. The cause isn’t always apparent by the symptoms. There’s the common culprit (noise-associated hearing loss), sure. But in some cases, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
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 kind of hearing loss, known as sensorineural hearing loss is a bit more complex than that, but you get the point.
But in some cases, this sort of long-term, noise induced damage isn’t the cause of hearing loss. A condition called auditory neuropathy, while less prevalent, can in some cases be the cause. This is a hearing disorder where your ear and inner ear collect sounds perfectly fine, but for some reason, can’t fully transfer those sounds to your brain.
Auditory neuropathy symptoms
The symptoms of traditional noise related hearing loss can often look a lot like those of auditory neuropathy. Things like cranking up the volume on your devices and not being able to hear well in loud environments. This can sometimes make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and manage.
Still, auditory neuropathy does have some unique features that make it possible to identify. When hearing loss symptoms present like this, you can be fairly certain that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. Though, as always, you’ll be better served by an official diagnosis from us.
The more unique symptoms of auditory neuropathy include:
- Sounds sound jumbled or confused: This is, once again, not an issue with volume. The volume of what you’re hearing is completely normal, the problem is that the sounds seem jumbled and you can’t make sense of them. This can pertain to all sorts of sounds, not just speech.
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like somebody is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! This could be an indication that you’re experiencing auditory neuropathy.
- The inability to make out words: Sometimes, you can’t make out what somebody is saying even though the volume is just fine. The words sound mumbled or distorted.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
The underlying causes of this condition can, in part, be explained by its symptoms. On an individual level, the reasons why you might develop auditory neuropathy may not be completely clear. Both adults and children can experience this disorder. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, generally speaking:
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing center of your brain. If this nerve becomes damaged, your brain can’t get the full signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will seem off. When this takes place, you may interpret sounds as jumbled, unclear, or too quiet to discern.
- The cilia that send signals to the brain can be damaged: Sound can’t be sent to your brain in full form once these little fragile hairs have been compromised in a particular way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is quite certain why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others may not. That’s why there’s no exact science to combating it. But you may be at a higher risk of experiencing auditory neuropathy if you show specific close associations.
It should be mentioned that these risk factors are not guarantees, you might have all of these risk factors and not develop auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of developing this disorder.
Risk factors for children
Factors that can raise the risk of auditory neuropathy for children include the following:
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
- Other neurological disorders
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A low birth weight
- Liver conditions that cause jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin)
- Preterm or premature birth
Adult risk factors
Here are a few auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Family history of hearing disorders, including auditory neuropathy
- Some medications (specifically incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
- Various kinds of immune disorders
- Mumps and other distinct infectious diseases
In general, it’s a smart plan to minimize these risks as much as you can. If risk factors are there, it may be a good plan to schedule regular screenings with us.
How is auditory neuropathy diagnosed?
A standard hearing exam involves listening to tones with a set of headphones and raising a hand depending on which side you hear the tone on. That test won’t help much with auditory neuropathy.
Instead, we will generally recommend one of two tests:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test: The reaction of your inner ear and cochlea to stimuli will be tested with this diagnostic. A little microphone is placed 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.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: During this diagnostic test, you’ll have specialized electrodes attached to specific 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 react to sound. The quality of your brainwave reactions will help us identify whether your hearing problems reside in your outer ear (such as sensorineural hearing loss) or further in (as with auditory neuropathy).
Diagnosing your auditory neuropathy will be much more successful once we run the applicable tests.
Does auditory neuropathy have any treatments?
So you can bring your ears to us for treatment just like you take your car to the mechanic to have it fixed. In general, there’s no “cure” for auditory neuropathy. But this disorder can be treated in a few possible ways.
- Hearing aids: In some milder cases, hearing aids will be able to supply the necessary sound amplification to help you hear better, even if you have auditory neuropathy. Hearing aids will be an adequate option for some people. But because volume usually isn’t the problem, this isn’t typically the situation. Hearing aids are usually used in conjunction with other treatments because of this.
- Cochlear implant: For some people, hearing aids will not be able to solve the problems. In these instances, a cochlear implant might be required. This implant, basically, takes the signals from your inner ear and transports them directly to your brain. The internet has lots of videos of individuals having success with these remarkable devices!
- Frequency modulation: Sometimes, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering specific frequencies. That’s what occurs with a technology called frequency modulation. This strategy frequently makes use of devices that are, basically, highly customized hearing aids.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be put together 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 possible
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 right away 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! Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, especially need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.