Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright – not everything is wrong. 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.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow-moving?

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This might be due to earwax, swelling caused by allergies or many other things. Normally, your hearing will return when the primary obstruction is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is commonly due to 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 most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

Normally, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that’s not always the case. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. 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 somewhat frequently, it might be practical to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had a lot of work to get caught up on. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to mention that recent ailment during his appointment. After all, he was thinking about getting back to work and probably left out some other relevant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to return if his symptoms didn’t clear up. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in most cases, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

SSNH could be caused by a range of ailments and events. Some of those causes might include:

  • Blood circulation problems.
  • Specific medications.
  • A neurological issue.
  • Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.
  • Inflammation.

This list could go on for a while. Whatever concerns you need to be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing professional. But quite a few of these root conditions can be managed and that’s the significant point. There’s a possibility that you can reduce your long term hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently affected.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a quick test you can do to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And here’s how you do it: just begin humming. Simply hum a few measures of your favorite tune. What do you hear? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss could be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing expert). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to point out the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for a hearing test.

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