Hearing Health Blog

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss could be incorrect. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we put to rest at least one false belief. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over the years. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss might be difficult to understand. So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually caused by 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. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most cases the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This could be because of earwax, swelling from allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and dealing with the root issue will generally result in the recovery of your hearing).

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But that isn’t always the situation. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does occur. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be helpful to have 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 in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on some work after getting over a cold. Perhaps, during his appointment, he forgot to talk about his recent illness. Of course, he was thinking about getting back to work and most likely forgot to mention some other relevant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return if his symptoms didn’t clear up. 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 situations, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

SSNH could be caused by a variety of conditions and events. Some of those causes might include:

  • Certain medications.
  • Inflammation.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • Blood circulation problems.

This list could go on for a while. Whatever concerns you should be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But the point is that lots of of these root causes can be managed. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility to minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a short test to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite song. 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 head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional if the humming is louder on one side because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Inevitably, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to point out the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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