Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one mistaken impression. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

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

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss might seem difficult to comprehend. So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This could include anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and managing the root problem will usually bring about the recovery of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that isn’t always the situation. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does occur. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone assumes it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly 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 little quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven prudently made an appointment to see someone. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on a lot of work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to mention that recent illness during his appointment. 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 occurs suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But there could be significant consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever concerns you should be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing specialist. But many of these hidden conditions can be treated and that’s the significant point. There’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a brief test to get a rough understanding of where the problem is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Choose your favorite song and hum a few bars. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the loss of hearing may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing expert). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to point out the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for your appointment.

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