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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Alright, maybe not everything is false. 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 as time passes. It turns out that’s not necessarily true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be misdiagnosed.

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

When we consider sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you may 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 like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This might consist of anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will return when the underlying obstruction is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type 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. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of cases the damage is irreversible.

Usually, conductive hearing loss comes on quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that isn’t always the case. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated properly because everyone thinks it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it may be helpful to look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven prudently scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on some work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent ailment during his appointment. And maybe he even inadvertently left out some other relevant information (he was, after all, already stressing about getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But there could be significant repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But quite a few of these root conditions can be managed and that’s the significant point. There’s a possibility that you can minimize your lasting hearing damage if you treat these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently affected.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a short test to get a general understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly simple: hum to yourself. Select your favorite tune and hum a few bars. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both of your 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 expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural 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 specialist when you go in for your appointment.