Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have some misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there’s at least one thing worth clearing up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Get sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Commonly Slow Moving?

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

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is commonly due to 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 most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This could consist of anything from allergy-based inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and managing the root issue will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

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

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it may be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical situation. 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 seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on some work after getting over a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent condition during his appointment. After all, he was thinking about going back to work and most likely forgot to mention some other relevant details. And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to return 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). So, Steven would normally be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a variety of ailments and situations. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Whatever concerns you need to be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But a lot of these hidden conditions can be treated and that’s the main point. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a brief test you can perform to get a general understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: just begin humming. Pick your favorite song and hum a few bars. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both of ears. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the hearing loss might be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing professional). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a smart idea to mention the possibility because there may be serious consequences.

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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