Hearing Health Blog

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have some misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one false belief. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could be difficult to comprehend. So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we mean:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss results from a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This could include anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Normally, your hearing will come back when the root blockage is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But occasionally it works out differently. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does exist. 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 might be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and a crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing test. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Maybe he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent illness during his appointment. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and probably forgot to mention some other significant details. And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish 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 the majority of situations, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have significant consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better understanding of what problems you should be watching for. But the point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be dealt with. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a brief test to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you hear is coming from in 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 expert). Ultimately, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there could be severe repercussions.

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