Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss may be wrong. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there’s at least one thing worth clearing up. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be misdiagnosed.

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

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could seem hard to comprehend. So, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This could be because of earwax, swelling from allergies or many other things. Normally, your hearing will return when the root obstruction is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form 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. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s an unusual case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be helpful to have a 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 out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven prudently made an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had a ton of work to get caught up on. Maybe, during his appointment, he forgot to bring up his recent ailment. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and probably forgot to mention some other significant info. And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. 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 dangerous repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

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:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you should be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But the main point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be treated. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility that you can reduce your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can do to get a general understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: just start humming. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few bars. 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 hear is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing specialist if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions 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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