Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss might seem difficult to comprehend. So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially permanent, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This might be due to earwax, swelling caused by allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and managing the underlying issue will usually bring about the restoration of your hearing).

Commonly, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that’s not always the case. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does occur. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone thinks it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might 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 in his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had a lot of work to get caught up on. Maybe he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent ailment during his appointment. And it’s possible he even unintentionally left out 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. 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 situations, Steven would be just fine. But there could be dangerous consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

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

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better idea of what problems you should be watching for. But the point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be handled. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance that you can minimize your long term loss of hearing.

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 idea of where the problem is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (The majority 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 might be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there may be severe consequences.

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