Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you as time passes. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow Moving?

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

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This could include anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and dealing with the underlying problem will generally bring about the recovery of your hearing).

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But that isn’t always the case. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated properly because everyone assumes it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be practical to take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven wisely scheduled an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe, during his appointment, he forgot to bring up his recent ailment. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and probably forgot to mention some other relevant information. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to return if his symptoms didn’t clear up. 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 severe repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

There are a wide array of situations or ailments which could cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you need to be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing expert. But a lot of these hidden conditions can be managed and that’s the significant point. There’s a possibility that you can minimize your lasting hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently harmed.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can do a quick test to get a general idea of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: hum to yourself. Just hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What does the humming sound like? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing specialist if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to point out the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for an exam.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

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