Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops over time while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. 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 may seem difficult to understand. So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by intense noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this form of hearing loss. This could be due to earwax, swelling caused by allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and managing the underlying problem will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But that isn’t always the case. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone thinks it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be practical to look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say 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 bit quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and a crying baby. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing test. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on some work after getting over a cold. Perhaps, while at his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent ailment. And it’s possible he even inadvertently omitted some other important information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on suddenly (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

SSNH can be caused by a variety of ailments and situations. Including some of these:

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

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Whatever concerns you need to be watching for can be better understood by your hearing expert. But the point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be managed. There’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing damage if you treat these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can do to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: just start humming. Simply hum a few measures of your favorite song. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your audiologist if the humming is louder in one ear because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there may be serious consequences.

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