Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one mistaken impression. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could be difficult to understand. So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could consist of anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and resolving the underlying issue will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. 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 damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be helpful to have a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and a crying baby. So, Steven smartly made an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent illness at his appointment. And maybe he even unintentionally left out some other important info (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms persisted. 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 situations, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

There are a variety of situations or conditions which could cause SSNHL. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better idea of what issues you should be watching for. But many of these root problems can be managed and that’s the significant point. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a chance to lessen your long term loss of hearing.

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 perform to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And here’s how you do it: just start humming. Just hum a few bars 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, the majority of of what you’re hearing is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there could be serious repercussions.

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