Hearing versus Understanding

One of the most common refrains from people with hearing loss is “I hear people fine, but I don’t understand what they are saying.” Hearing without understanding is a common symptom of auditory neuropathy, a rare form of hearing loss that interrupts the signals running from the inner ear to the brain. Unfortunately, this can be a very disruptive form of hearing loss that can affect an individual’s livelihood. So to better understand how auditory neuropathy in adults happens and what can be done to treat it, let’s take a closer look at the condition. 

What is auditory neuropathy?

Auditory neuropathy is a form of neural hearing loss that affects an individual's ability to understand what someone is saying. Hearing loss involves our ears, and our brain as sound waves are coded by the ears and then translated into meaningful words. While hearing loss can present itself in varying degrees of severity in different frequencies, a very common progression of inner ear hearing loss is sloping high-frequency hearing loss. Usually, nerve impulses send messages from the inner ear to the brain, but when auditory neuropathy in adults is present, these messages are disrupted. This form of hearing loss can range from mild to severe, and both auditory neuropathy in one ear or two ears is common. 

Auditory neuropathy causes

Scientific research is ongoing to determine the factors that cause auditory neuropathy. Some research suggests damage to inner ear hair affects the ability to transmit sensory messages through the nervous system. Other reports have cited gene mutation or trauma to the auditory nerves as potential causes for this hearing disorder. 

What does auditory neuropathy sound like?

When examining human speech signals, we see that there are lower-pitched sounds or vowels (A, E, I, O and U) and higher-pitched sounds or consonants (S, F, Th, Sh, Ch, K, P and H). Being able to hear vowels in the lower-pitched frequencies gives us a sensation of hearing speech, but not being able to hear higher-pitched sounds or “consonants” is what compromises our ability to understand full words. The high-pitched frequencies where consonants occur is where the discrimination of different words occurs. Accordingly, when we have high-frequency hearing loss, we lose the ability to hear the “consonant” sounds efficiently and, thus, our ability to tell the difference between words such as ‘Cat” or “Hat”. 

Imagine having a book with every S, F, Th, Sh, Ch, K, P and H erased. You could read part of the book and understand some of it, but you would not be able to understand many key words and phrases, and as a result, you would be challenged to understand it. This is what is happening when someone has auditory neuropathy — you can hear part of the message. However, your high-frequency loss has effectively erased the key sounds or letters needed for discrimination and understanding.

Is auditory neuropathy permanent?

Auditory neuropathy is a hearing disorder that doesn’t necessarily follow a preset pattern. If you have auditory neuropathy in one ear, it may develop in the other or it may go away entirely. On the other hand, children and adults have experienced mild auditory neuropathy that can deteriorate over time, depending on the underlying cause of the symptoms. 

How do you treat auditory neuropathy?

If you think you are experiencing auditory neuropathy symptoms, the good news is there are options available to help improve your quality of life. High-frequency hearing loss can usually be helped with proper diagnosis and appropriate amplification. In some cases of auditory neuropathy, cochlear implants are a great solution for many patients. If you want to hear better and understand more, get in touch with one of our experienced hearing professionals, who will be able to organise an appointment today. Head online or call 1800 024 985 to learn more.

By Starkey Australia

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