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 that needs to be cleared up. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over time. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

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

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may be difficult to comprehend. 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 could be because of earwax, swelling from allergies or many other things. Usually, your hearing will return when the primary obstruction is cleared away.
  • 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 most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

Normally, conductive hearing loss comes on rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But sometimes it works out differently. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. 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 frequently, it might be practical to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven prudently scheduled an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on some work after getting over a cold. Maybe, while at his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent condition. And it’s possible he even accidentally left out some other important info (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in most situations, Steven would be just fine. But there could be significant consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you should be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But the main point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be dealt with. And if they’re addressed before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility that you can minimize your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a brief test you can do to get a general understanding of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: just begin humming. Just hum a few measures of your favorite song. What do you hear? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing professional). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural 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 specialist 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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