Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have some misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one false impression. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you as time passes. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Develop sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Generally Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could be difficult to understand. So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we mean:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could be because of earwax, inflammation from allergies or lots of other things. Normally, your hearing will come back when the primary blockage is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is normally due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

Normally, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But occasionally it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be especially damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it may be helpful to have a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent ailment at his appointment. And it’s possible he even accidentally omitted some other significant info (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to come back if his symptoms persisted. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be just fine. But there could be significant repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

There are a wide variety of situations or ailments which may cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

  • Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Specific medications.
  • Inflammation.
  • Problems with blood circulation.

This list could go on and on. Your hearing professional will have a much better understanding of what problems you should be looking out for. But the main point is that many of these underlying causes can be handled. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can do a short test to get a general understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: just start humming. Just hum a few measures of your favorite song. What do you hear? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for an exam.

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