Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have some misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one false impression. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be misdiagnosed.

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

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This might be due to earwax, inflammation caused by allergies or many other things. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and dealing with the root issue will usually result in the recovery of your hearing).
  • 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 noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

Normally, conductive hearing loss comes on quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But that’s not always the situation. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone thinks it’s an unusual case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it might be practical to take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his barking dog and a crying baby. So, Steven smartly made an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had lots of work to catch up on. Maybe he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent condition during his appointment. After all, he was thinking about going back to work and most likely left out some other important information. And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

There are a wide variety of events or ailments which might cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better idea of what problems you should be watching for. But the main point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be managed. There’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing damage if you deal with these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently affected.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a quick test to get a general understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: hum to yourself. Just hum a few measures of your favorite song. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing specialist if the humming is louder on one side because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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