Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Alright – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on over time while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow Moving?

When we discuss sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you may feel a little disoriented – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, the main point can be categorized in like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This could be because of earwax, swelling from allergies or many other things. Usually, your hearing will return when the root blockage is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is commonly due to 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. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most instances the damage is permanent.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone assumes it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it may be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had lots of work to catch up on. Maybe he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent illness during his appointment. And it’s possible he even accidentally omitted some other relevant info (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms did not diminish 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). And so, in the majority of situations, Steven would be ok. But there could be severe repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

There are a wide variety of situations or conditions which might cause SSNHL. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing professional will have a far better understanding of what issues you should be looking out for. But the point is that many of these root causes can be treated. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility that you can minimize your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a short test you can do to get a general concept of where the problem is coming from. And this is how you do it: just start humming. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite song. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you hear is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional 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 repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to mention the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for your appointment.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.
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