Definition

Auditory neuropathy (AN) occurs when the nerve system of the inner ear fails to process sounds coming from the outer ear. Wrong information gets to the brain. Sounds are present, but words are fuzzy and incomplete. AN can affect any age group, from babies to adults.

The Ear

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Causes

During the hearing process, the outer ear sends vibrations to the inner ear. Hair cells in the inner ear break down the vibrations into electrical signals. These are sent to the brain, which filters them as sound. While there is debate about the exact cause of AN, it may be due to:

  • Damage to the hair cells in the inner ear
  • Bad connections between the hair cells in the inner ear and the nerve to the brain
  • Damaged nerve
  • Combination of these problems

Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing AN:

Tell your doctor if you or your child has any of these risk factors.

Symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to AN. These symptoms may be caused by other conditions. Tell your doctor if you have any of these:

  • The sound is heard, but the word is not clear (white noise)
  • Sounds tune in and out
  • Words and sounds seem out of sync

The level of hearing loss can vary from mild to severe. But people with AN all share the same problem—they have trouble picking out words. Many cases involve children.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. He will also do a physical exam. Tests may include:

  • Auditory brainstem response (ABR)— electrodes are used to measure brainwave activity, helpful in assessing function of auditory nerve
  • Otoacoustic emissions (OAE)—a tiny microphone is placed in the ear canal to record how the cells respond to clicking sounds; helpful in checking if hair cells are working normally

Treatment

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:

  • Working with a team of specialists, including:
    • Otolaryngologist—doctor specializing in disorders of the ear, nose, and throat)
    • Audiologist—doctor specializing in hearing loss
    • Speech-language pathologist—healthcare professional who specializes in communication disorders
  • Using technology, such as:
    • Cochlear implants —surgically implanted electronic devices that stimulate the auditory nerve to send information to the brain
    • Hearing aids
    • Listening devices (eg, frequency modulation [FM] systems)
  • Having speech-language therapy, such as:
    • Sign language
    • Speech-reading (also known as lip-reading)
    • Exercises combining listening skills with technology

Goals of treatment commonly include:

  • Preserving existing hearing skills
  • Restoring lost hearing
  • Finding new ways of communicating

Prevention

Since the exact cause is unknown, there are no clear ways to prevent this condition. But, these steps may help:

  • If you are pregnant, ask your doctor how you can avoid infections.
  • Have your baby’s hearing checked at each doctor’s visit.
  • If you have any conditions related to AN, talk to your doctor.