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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be incorrect. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing worth clearing up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops over time while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be misdiagnosed.

When You Get sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Commonly Slow Moving?

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This might be because of earwax, swelling caused by allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and resolving the root problem will usually result in the recovery of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is normally due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by loud noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that’s not always the case. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose 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. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven prudently made an appointment to see someone. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He was just getting over a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Perhaps, during his appointment, he didn’t remember to talk about his recent illness. After all, he was thinking about going back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other important info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a range of ailments and events. Including some of these:

  • Some medications.
  • Blood circulation problems.
  • Inflammation.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • A neurological condition.

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

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a quick test to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: just begin humming. Pick your favorite song and hum a few measures. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the loss of hearing may be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing professional). Inevitably, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for a hearing test.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.