Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one false belief. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss happening suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over the years. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow Moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this form of hearing loss. This could be due to earwax, inflammation from allergies or many other things. Usually, your hearing will return when the underlying obstruction is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind 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 caused by loud noise. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But that’s not always the situation. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be especially damaging.

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 suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his barking dog and crying baby. So, Steven smartly scheduled an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to get caught up on. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent illness at his appointment. And it’s possible he even unintentionally left out some other significant information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return if his symptoms persisted. 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 just fine. But there could be serious repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Your hearing expert will have a much better understanding of what concerns you should be looking out for. But the point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be treated. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a chance to minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a quick test to get a rough concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: just start humming. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing specialist if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be 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 specialist when you go in for your appointment.

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