Have you ever been in the middle of the road and your car breaks down? It’s not an enjoyable situation. Your car has to be safely pulled off the road. Then you likely pop your hood and take a look at the engine. Who knows why?
Humorously, you still do this despite the fact that you have no knowledge of engines. Maybe whatever is wrong will be totally obvious. Ultimately, a tow truck will need to be called.
And a picture of the problem only becomes evident when mechanics diagnose it. That’s because cars are complicated, there are so many moving parts and computerized software that the symptoms (a car that won’t move) are not enough to inform you as to what’s wrong.
With hearing loss, this same type of thing can happen. The cause is not always obvious by the symptoms. There’s the common cause (noise-related hearing loss), sure. But sometimes, something else like auditory neuropathy is the culprit.
Auditory neuropathy, what is it?
When most people think about hearing loss, they think of noisy concerts and jet engines, excessive noise that damages your hearing. This kind of hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss, and it’s somewhat more involved than basic noise damage.
But in some cases, long-term hearing loss can be the result of something other than noise damage. While it’s less common, hearing loss can in some cases be caused by a condition known as auditory neuropathy. When sound can’t, for whatever reason, be effectively transmitted to your brain even though your ear is collecting that sound perfectly fine.
Symptoms of auditory neuropathy
The symptoms of conventional 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 frequently make auditory neuropathy hard to diagnose and treat.
Auditory neuropathy, however, has some specific symptoms that make identifying it easier. When hearing loss symptoms present in this way, you can be pretty certain that it’s not standard noise related hearing loss. 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:
- An inability to make out words: Sometimes, the volume of a word is normal, but you just can’t distinguish what’s being said. Words are confused and muddled sounding.
- Sound fades in and out: Perhaps it feels like someone is playing with the volume knob inside of your head! If you’re dealing with these symptoms it could be a case of auditory neuropathy.
- Sounds seem jumbled or confused: Once again, this isn’t an issue with volume. You can hear sounds but you just can’t understand them. This can go beyond the speech and apply to all types of sounds around you.
Some causes of auditory neuropathy
The underlying causes of this condition can, in part, be defined by the symptoms. On a personal level, the reasons why you may develop auditory neuropathy might not be entirely clear. Both adults and children can develop this condition. And there are a couple of well described possible causes, broadly speaking:
- Nerve damage: There’s a nerve that carries sound signals from your inner ear to the hearing portion of your brain. If this nerve gets damaged, your brain doesn’t get the complete signal, and as a result, the sounds it “interprets” will sound off. Sounds might seem garbled 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 full form once these little delicate hairs have been damaged in a specific way.
Auditory neuropathy risk factors
No one is quite certain why some people will experience auditory neuropathy while others might not. That’s why there’s no exact science to preventing it. Nevertheless, there are close associations which might reveal that you’re at a higher risk of developing this condition.
It should be noted that these risk factors are not guarantees, you may have every single one of these risk factors and not experience auditory neuropathy. But the more risk factors shown, the higher your statistical likelihood of experiencing this disorder.
Children’s risk factors
Here are some risk factors that will increase the likelihood of auditory neuropathy in children:
- Other neurological disorders
- A low birth weight
- Preterm or premature birth
- Liver disorders that result in jaundice (a yellow look to the skin)
- An abundance of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown)
- A lack of oxygen before labor begins or during birth
Risk factors for adults
Here are some auditory neuropathy risk factors for adults:
- Mumps and other specific infectious diseases
- auditory neuropathy and other hearing disorders that are passed on genetically
- Immune disorders of various types
- Some medications (especially incorrect use of medications that can cause hearing problems)
In general, it’s a good idea to limit these risks as much as possible. Scheduling regular screenings with us is a good idea, particularly if you do have risk factors.
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. When you’re dealing with auditory neuropathy, that test will be of very minimal use.
One of the following two tests will normally be used instead:
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test: Specialized electrodes will be connected to specific places on your head and scalp with this test. This test isn’t painful or unpleasant in any way so don’t be concerned. These electrodes place particular focus on tracking how your brainwaves react to sound stimuli. Whether you’re dealing with sensorineural hearing loss (outer ear) or auditory neuropathy (inner ear) will be established by the quality of your brainwaves.
- 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 an array of clicks and tones. The diagnostic device will then measure how well your inner ear reacts to those tones and clicks. If the inner ear is a problem, this data will reveal it.
Once we do the appropriate tests, we will be able to more effectively diagnose and treat your auditory neuropathy.
Is there treatment for auditory neuropathy?
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 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. For some individuals, hearing aids will work just fine! But because volume isn’t usually the issue, this isn’t usually the situation. Due to this, hearing aids are usually coupled with other therapy and treatment solutions.
- 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 situations. Signals from your inner ear are transmitted directly to your brain with this implant. They’re pretty amazing! (And you can watch many YouTube videos of them working for patients.)
- Frequency modulation: In some cases, it’s possible to hear better by boosting or lowering specific frequencies. With a technology called frequency modulation, that’s exactly what occurs. Basically, highly customized hearing aids are used in this strategy.
- Communication skills training: Communication skills training can be combined with any combination of these treatments if needed. This will help you communicate using the hearing you have and work around your symptoms instead of treating them.
The sooner you get treatment, the better
Getting your disorder treated right away will, as with any hearing condition, produce better outcomes.
So it’s important 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! Children, who experience a lot of cognitive growth and development, particularly need to have their hearing treated as soon as possible.