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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss might be wrong. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

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

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little disoriented – and we don’t hold it against 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 from loud noise. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most cases the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This might include anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Normally, your hearing will return when the underlying blockage is cleared up.

Commonly, conductive hearing loss comes on quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But sometimes it works out differently. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s an unusual case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be helpful to 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 out of his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to mention that recent condition during his appointment. Of course, he was thinking about getting back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other significant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return if his symptoms persisted. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss happens suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of cases, Steven would be just fine. But there could be severe consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

There are a variety of events or conditions which may cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Whatever concerns you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But quite a few of these underlying conditions can be managed and that’s the significant point. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a chance to lessen your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a short test you can perform to get a general concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty easy: just start humming. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing 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 loss of hearing may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing specialist). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for an exam.