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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright – 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. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

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

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may seem hard to comprehend. So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is normally 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. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss results from a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This might be because of earwax, inflammation from allergies or many other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and managing the root issue will generally result in the recovery of your hearing).

Normally, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that’s not always the situation. 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 somewhat frequently, it may be practical to have a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and a crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on some work after recovering from a cold. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent condition at his appointment. And maybe he even inadvertently omitted some other important information (he was, after all, already stressing about getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to come back if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be just fine. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a wide variety of conditions and events. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Whatever problems you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing professional. But the main point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be dealt with. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can do a quick test to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And here’s how you do it: just start humming. Just hum a few measures of your favorite tune. What do you hear? 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.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional if the humming is louder on one side because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. Inevitably, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for an exam.