Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss might be wrong. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one false impression. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss happening all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over the years. It turns out that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This might include anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Normally, your hearing will return when the primary blockage is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But that isn’t always the situation. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be especially damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be practical to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear in his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on some work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t sure to mention that recent illness during his appointment. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and most likely left out some other relevant information. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return if his symptoms persisted. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be just fine. But there could be severe consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a wide variety of conditions and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Whatever problems you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing professional. But many of these hidden conditions can be treated and that’s the significant point. There’s a chance that you can reduce your long term hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a short test to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And here’s how you do it: hum to yourself. Just hum a few measures of your favorite tune. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you’re hearing is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there may be significant consequences.

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