Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one mistaken belief. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss happening all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over the years. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you might feel a little confused – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually 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 essentially 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 a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This could include anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Normally, your hearing will come back when the underlying blockage is cleared away.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But that’s not always the situation. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does occur. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be helpful to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear anything 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 smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on some work after recovering from a cold. Maybe he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent condition during his appointment. Of course, he was worrying about going back to work and more than likely left out some other relevant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss happens 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 First 72 Decisive Hours

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

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

This list could go on for a while. Whatever concerns you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But the main point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be treated. And if they’re addressed before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility that you can minimize your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a quick test to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: just start humming. Just hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What does the humming sound like? 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.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional if the humming is louder on one side because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there could be significant repercussions.

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