Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss may be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops slowly while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be misdiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

When we consider 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, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could consist of anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and managing the root problem will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone assumes it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be practical to have a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to get caught up on. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent condition during his appointment. And it’s possible he even inadvertently left out some other significant info (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on 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 with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have considerable consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Your hearing professional will have a far better concept of what issues you should be watching for. But the main point is that lots of of these root causes can be treated. There’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing damage if you address these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a brief test you can do to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: just start humming. Just hum a few measures of your favorite song. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your 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). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there could be significant consequences.

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