Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one false belief. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over time. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be misdiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow-moving?

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

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally due to 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. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most instances the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This might be because of earwax, inflammation caused by allergies or lots of other things. Usually, your hearing will return when the root obstruction is cleared up.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it may be practical to have a look at a hypothetical situation. 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. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven smartly scheduled an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to get caught up on. Perhaps, during his appointment, he didn’t remember to mention his recent ailment. After all, he was thinking about getting back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other significant info. And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. Sudden 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 fine. But if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

SSNH could be caused by a wide variety of ailments and events. Including some of these:

  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • Inflammation.
  • Problems with blood circulation.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Specific medications.

This list could go on and on. Whatever issues you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing professional. But many of these root conditions can be treated and that’s the most important point. There’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a quick test to get a rough concept of where the problem is coming from. And here’s how you do it: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you’re hearing is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the loss of hearing might be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing professional). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there may be significant repercussions.

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