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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over time. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little disoriented – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This might be due to earwax, inflammation from allergies or many other things. Usually, your hearing will return when the underlying obstruction is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is normally due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by intense noises, 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 cases the damage is irreversible.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But that’s not always the case. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be helpful to take 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 wise thing and scheduled a hearing test. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to get caught up on. Maybe, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to bring up his recent condition. After all, he was thinking about getting back to work and probably forgot to mention some other significant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. 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 there could be significant consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a range of conditions and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you should be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing professional. But many of these underlying problems can be managed and that’s the main point. There’s a chance that you can minimize your lasting hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a brief test you can do to get a general concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: just start humming. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (After all, when you hum, most of what you’re hearing is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing professional if the humming is louder in one ear because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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