Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss may be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over time. It turns out that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may seem hard to understand. So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we mean:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This might be due to earwax, swelling from allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and managing the root issue will usually result in the recovery of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is commonly caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss from loud noise. In the majority of instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

Usually, conductive hearing loss comes on rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that isn’t always the case. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be practical to take a look at a hypothetical interaction. 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. His alarm clock sounded quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly made an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Perhaps, during his appointment, he didn’t remember to bring up his recent ailment. Of course, he was worrying about getting back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other important information. And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to come back if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in most cases, Steven would be ok. But there could be significant consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

There are a variety of situations or conditions which might cause SSNHL. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for a while. Whatever problems you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing professional. But many of these underlying conditions can be treated and that’s the most important point. There’s a chance that you can lessen your lasting hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a short test to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Just hum a few bars of your favorite song. What does it sound like? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing expert if the humming is louder on one side because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could 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 point out the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for your appointment.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.
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