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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss may be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. It turns out that’s not necessarily true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could be difficult to comprehend. So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in the majority of instances the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this form of hearing loss. This could include anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will come back when the primary blockage is cleared up.

Normally, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But sometimes it works out differently. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t 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 might be practical to have a 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. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to get caught up on some work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to mention that recent condition during his appointment. After all, he was thinking about going back to work and more than likely left out some other significant information. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to come back if his symptoms persisted. 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 if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

SSNH could be caused by a range of ailments and situations. Including some of these:

  • Some medications.
  • Blood circulation problems.
  • A neurological issue.
  • Inflammation.
  • Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Whatever concerns you should be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing professional. But the main point is that many of these underlying causes can be handled. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a quick test to get a general understanding of where the problem is coming from. And here’s how you do it: hum to yourself. Simply 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 inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional if the humming is louder in one ear because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there may be serious repercussions.