Hearing Health Blog

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have some misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on over time while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could be hard to understand. So, the main point can be categorized 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 think of hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of cases the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This could consist of anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and resolving the root problem will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

Commonly, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But sometimes it works out differently. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does happen. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone assumes it’s an unusual case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be practical to have a 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 anything in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly made an appointment to see someone. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t sure to mention that recent condition during his appointment. And it’s possible he even accidentally left out some other significant information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was 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). And so, in most situations, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a variety of ailments and situations. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing expert will have a much better understanding of what problems you should be looking out for. But many of these underlying conditions can be treated and that’s the most important point. There’s a possibility that you can minimize your lasting hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a short test to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: just begin humming. Choose your favorite song and hum a few bars. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (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 hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing specialist). 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 point out the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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