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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over time. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Develop sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Generally 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, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This could include anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will return when the root blockage is cleared up.
  • 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 from loud noise. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it might be helpful to look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his barking dog and crying baby. So, Steven wisely scheduled an appointment to see someone. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on some work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps, during his appointment, he didn’t remember to bring up his recent condition. After all, he was worrying about going back to work and probably forgot to mention some other relevant details. And so Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. 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 there could be dangerous repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a wide variety of conditions and situations. Including some of these:

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

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you need to be watching for can be better understood by your hearing professional. But quite a few of these underlying problems can be managed and that’s the significant point. There’s a chance that you can reduce your long term hearing damage if you deal with these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently harmed.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can do a quick test to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly simple: just begin humming. Just hum a few measures of your favorite song. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the loss of hearing could be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing professional). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there may be significant consequences.