Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there’s at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you as time passes. It turns out that’s not necessarily true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be misdiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow Moving?

When we discuss sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This could include anything from allergy-based inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and dealing with the root issue will generally result in the recovery of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally 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. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most cases the damage is irreversible.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it’s not treated properly because everyone assumes it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be helpful to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to get caught up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe, during his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent ailment. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and most likely left out some other relevant info. And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. 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 if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

There are a wide variety of situations or conditions which could cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

  • Problems with blood circulation.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • Particular medications.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Inflammation.

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better concept of what concerns you should be looking out for. But many of these underlying conditions can be treated and that’s the main point. There’s a chance that you can lessen your lasting hearing damage if you deal with these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can do to get a rough concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: just begin humming. Select your favorite song and hum a few bars. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you’re hearing is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing expert if the humming is louder on one side because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for your appointment.

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