Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops slowly while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. 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 be hard to understand. So, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This could be due to earwax, inflammation from allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and resolving the underlying issue will generally result in the restoration of your hearing).
  • 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. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of instances the damage is permanent.

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But sometimes it works out differently. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it might be helpful to have a look at a hypothetical interaction. 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 little quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He was just getting over a cold and he had a lot of work to catch up on. Perhaps, while at his appointment, he forgot to talk about his recent ailment. Of course, he was worrying about going back to work and most likely forgot to mention some other relevant information. And so Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. 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 just fine. But there could be serious consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

  • Inflammation.
  • Blood circulation problems.
  • A neurological issue.
  • Certain medications.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.

This list could go on and on. Your hearing specialist will have a much better understanding of what issues you should be watching for. But quite a few of these root conditions can be managed and that’s the significant point. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility to reduce your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a quick test you can perform to get a rough understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty easy: hum to yourself. Just hum a few bars of your favorite song. What do you hear? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you’re hearing is coming from in your own head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the hearing loss might be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing specialist). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive 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 repercussions.

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