Hearing Health Blog

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be wrong. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one mistaken belief. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over the years. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you might feel a little confused – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we mean:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form 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. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in the majority of instances the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This could 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 bring about the recovery of your hearing).

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that’s not always the situation. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does occur. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be practical to have a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven smartly scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to catch up on. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent ailment during his appointment. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and probably forgot to mention some other significant information. And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. 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 there could be dangerous consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing specialist will have a much better concept of what issues you should be looking out for. But the main point is that many of these underlying causes can be treated. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility to lessen your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can do to get a rough idea of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: hum to yourself. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing expert if the humming is louder on one side because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be 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 bring up the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for a hearing test.

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