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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be incorrect. Alright – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. Normally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss might be hard to comprehend. So, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This might include anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and managing the underlying problem will generally result in the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially permanent, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But that’s not always the situation. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it might be practical to have 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 in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven prudently made an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent ailment at his appointment. After all, he was thinking about getting back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other important information. And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of situations, Steven would be ok. But there could be severe repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

  • A neurological issue.
  • Some medications.
  • Inflammation.
  • Problems with blood circulation.
  • Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.

This list could go on and on. Your hearing expert will have a much better idea of what issues you should be looking out for. But the main point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be dealt with. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility that you can minimize your long term hearing loss.

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 understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: hum to yourself. Just hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both of your 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 discussing with your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to point out the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for your appointment.

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