Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss could be incorrect. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But we put to rest at least one false impression. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be wrongly diagnosed.

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

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This might include anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Normally, your hearing will return when the root blockage is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by intense noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most cases the damage is permanent.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Sudden 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 fairly often, it may be practical to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine 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. As did his barking dog and crying baby. So, Steven smartly made an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch 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 thinking about going back to work and more than likely left out some other significant info. And so Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of situations, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Your hearing expert will have a far better idea of what issues you should be looking out for. But the main point is that many of these underlying causes can be dealt with. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility to lessen your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can perform to get a general idea of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: just begin humming. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What does it sound like? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your 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). Ultimately, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for your appointment.

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