Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over time. 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 may feel a little disoriented – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we mean:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is commonly caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by intense noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • 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-driven swelling to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and dealing with the underlying issue will usually result in the restoration of your hearing).

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone thinks it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, 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 in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing test. 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. Maybe he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent condition at his appointment. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other important info. And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. 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 dangerous repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

There are a wide variety of events or conditions which might cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing professional will have a far better understanding of what concerns you should be watching for. But the point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be handled. There’s a possibility that you can lessen your lasting hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can do to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly simple: hum to yourself. 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 hearing loss is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the loss of hearing might be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing expert). Inevitably, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for a hearing test.

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