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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could seem hard to understand. So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we mean:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is commonly due to 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. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of instances the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this form of hearing loss. This could be because of earwax, swelling caused by allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and resolving the root issue will usually result in the restoration of your hearing).

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does happen. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be especially damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, 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 in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and crying baby. So, Steven prudently scheduled an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t sure to mention that recent illness during his appointment. And maybe he even inadvertently omitted some other significant info (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But there could be serious consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Whatever problems you should be watching for can be better understood by your hearing professional. But the 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 possibility 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 do a brief test to get a general idea of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Select your favorite song and hum a few measures. What does the humming sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (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 might be sensorineural hearing loss. Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there could be significant repercussions.