Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have some misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. 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 happens quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

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

When we discuss sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little confused – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is usually caused by 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 get worse in the majority of instances the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This could be due to earwax, swelling from allergies or many other things. Usually, your hearing will come back when the underlying blockage is cleared away.

Commonly, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But sometimes it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does occur. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine 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 seemed quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven wisely made an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on some work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to mention his recent condition. After all, he was thinking about going back to work and more than likely left out some other significant information. And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in most cases, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better idea of what concerns you should be looking out for. But a lot of these root problems can be managed and that’s the main point. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a brief test you can do to get a rough idea of where the problem is coming from. And here’s how you do it: just begin humming. Simply hum a few measures of your favorite song. What do you hear? 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 inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss could be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing professional). 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 exam, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there may be significant consequences.

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