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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be incorrect. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Normally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on over time 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?

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This might be due to earwax, swelling from allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and dealing with the root issue will generally bring about the recovery of your hearing).
  • 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 loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Even though you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most instances the damage is permanent.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone assumes it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, 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 in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven prudently 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, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to talk about his recent condition. And it’s possible he even unintentionally left out some other significant information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to return if his symptoms persisted. 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 fine. But there could be dangerous consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever problems you should be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But the main point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be treated. There’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a short test you can perform to get a general understanding of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Select your favorite tune and hum a few bars. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss 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 specialist if the humming is louder in one ear because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be 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 may be significant consequences.