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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss might be wrong. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one false impression. Normally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops slowly while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

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

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little confused – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually due to 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 most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This could be due to earwax, inflammation from allergies or many other things. Normally, your hearing will return when the primary obstruction is cleared up.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But that’s not always the situation. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be practical to look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s suppose 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. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Perhaps, during his appointment, he didn’t remember to mention his recent illness. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other relevant details. And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss happens suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have substantial consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

SSNH could be caused by a range of ailments and situations. Some of those causes might include:

  • Problems with blood circulation.
  • Inflammation.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Specific medications.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.

This list could go on for a while. Whatever issues you should be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But quite a few of these root problems can be managed and that’s the significant point. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance that you can reduce your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re having 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 here’s how you do it: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few measures of your favorite song. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you’re hearing is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there may be severe consequences.