Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one false belief. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you as time passes. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow Moving?

When we consider sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we mean:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This could consist of anything from allergy-based inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and resolving the root issue will generally result in the recovery of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is normally caused by 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 most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

Usually, conductive hearing loss comes on quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that’s not always the situation. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does happen. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be helpful to have a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear in his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven prudently made an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on some work after getting over a cold. Maybe, during his appointment, he forgot to bring up his recent illness. And maybe he even inadvertently left out some other significant information (he was, after all, already stressing about getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of cases, Steven would be just fine. But there could be serious repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a range of ailments and situations. Including some of these:

  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • A neurological issue.
  • Certain medications.
  • Inflammation.
  • Blood circulation problems.

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Whatever concerns you should be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But many of these underlying conditions can be treated and that’s the significant point. And if they’re addressed before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a chance to lessen your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can do a short test to get a general concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: just begin humming. Simply hum a few measures of your favorite song. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing specialist if the humming is louder in one ear because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to point out the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for your appointment.

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