Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have some misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But we put to rest at least one false impression. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you as time passes. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may be hard to comprehend. So, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is commonly caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss from loud noise. In most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This could be because of earwax, swelling from allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and dealing with the root problem will generally result in the restoration of your hearing).

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But that’s not always the situation. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone assumes it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it might be practical to have a 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 in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing test. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Maybe, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to mention his recent illness. And it’s possible he even unintentionally omitted some other important 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 if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Your hearing professional will have a much better idea of what concerns you should be looking out for. But the main point is that lots of of these root causes can be handled. And if they’re addressed before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility to minimize your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a short test to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: just start humming. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What does the humming sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing expert if the humming is louder on one side because it might 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 overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for a hearing test.

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