Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one mistaken belief. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you as time passes. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Get sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Usually 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 dizzying). So, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This might include anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will come back when the underlying obstruction is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form 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 caused by loud noise. In the majority of instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

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

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may 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 anything out of his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven prudently scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on some work after getting over a cold. Maybe, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to mention his recent condition. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and most likely left out some other relevant details. And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return 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). So, Steven would normally be fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you need to be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But the point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be treated. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility to lessen your long term loss of hearing.

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 rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And here’s how you do it: just begin humming. Choose your favorite song 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. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, 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. Inevitably, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general 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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