Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one mistaken belief. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring 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 might seem difficult to comprehend. So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we mean:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually 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 cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This might include anything from allergy-based inflammation to earwax. Normally, your hearing will return when the root blockage is cleared up.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But that’s not always the situation. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does occur. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it may be helpful to have a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven wisely scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to catch up on. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent illness during his appointment. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and probably left out some other important info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. 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 cases, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

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

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can do a quick test to get a general concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: just start humming. Just hum a few measures of your favorite song. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to mention the possibility because there could be significant consequences.

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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