Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss may be wrong. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss happening suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you as time passes. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could seem difficult to understand. So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is normally due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of instances the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could consist of anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and managing the underlying issue will usually result in the restoration of your hearing).

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But that isn’t always the situation. Even though 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 harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it may be helpful to look at a hypothetical situation. 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. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and a crying baby. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing test. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe, during his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent ailment. And maybe he even inadvertently omitted some other relevant info (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised 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). So, Steven would normally be fine. But there could be significant consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

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

  • Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.
  • Problems with blood circulation.
  • A neurological issue.
  • Particular medications.
  • Inflammation.

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Whatever problems you need to be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing professional. But the point is that many of these underlying causes can be dealt with. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility that you can reduce 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 general idea of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty easy: hum to yourself. Just hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the hearing loss could be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing specialist). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for an exam.

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