Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss creeping 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 consider 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, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally caused by 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 instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this form of hearing loss. This could be because of earwax, swelling from allergies or many other things. Normally, your hearing will come back when the root obstruction is cleared up.

Commonly, conductive hearing loss happens quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But occasionally it works out differently. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it may be practical to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven wisely scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on a lot of work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to mention that recent illness at his appointment. Of course, he was worrying about going back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other relevant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be just fine. But there could be severe consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

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

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

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

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a quick test you can perform to get a general idea of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite song. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (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 loss of hearing might be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing professional). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for an exam.

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