Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But we put to rest at least one false impression. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss happening all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over the years. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be misdiagnosed.

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

When we consider sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little disoriented – 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 kind of hearing loss is commonly due to 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. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most instances the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this form of hearing loss. This might include anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Normally, your hearing will return when the root blockage is cleared away.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that isn’t always the situation. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does exist. 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 fairly frequently, it might be practical to look at a hypothetical interaction. 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. His alarm clock sounded quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly made an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on some work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent condition at his appointment. And maybe he even accidentally omitted some other significant information (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to come back if his symptoms persisted. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of cases, Steven would be ok. But there could be significant repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

There are a wide variety of events or conditions which might cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing professional will have a much better understanding of what problems you should be on the lookout for. But the main point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be managed. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility that you can minimize 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 perform to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: hum to yourself. Just hum a few measures of your favorite song. What does the humming sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own 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 specialist). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there may be significant consequences.

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