Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. It turns out that’s not necessarily 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 could seem hard to understand. So, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could include anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Normally, your hearing will return when the underlying blockage is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is commonly due to 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. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

Normally, conductive hearing loss comes on quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But occasionally it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does happen. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it might be helpful to 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 out of his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven smartly made an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on a lot of work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps, while at his appointment, he forgot to talk about his recent condition. And it’s possible he even inadvertently omitted some other relevant info (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms persisted. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss happens suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of situations, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

There are a wide array of situations or conditions which may cause SSNHL. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Whatever problems you need to be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing expert. But the main point is that many of these hidden causes can be dealt with. There’s a chance that you can reduce your lasting hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a short test to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: just begin humming. Just hum a few bars 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, the majority of of what you’re hearing is coming from in your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss could be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to point out the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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