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 we can clear up at least one false impression. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you as time passes. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be misdiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

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

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is commonly due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss from loud noise. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this form of hearing loss. This might be because of earwax, inflammation from allergies or many other things. Usually, your hearing will come back when the primary blockage is cleared up.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But that’s not always the case. Even though 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 an unusual case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be helpful to have 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 in his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven wisely made an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to get caught up on. Perhaps, during his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent illness. After all, he was worrying about going back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other important info. And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in most situations, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

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

  • A neurological condition.
  • Blood circulation problems.
  • Specific medications.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • Inflammation.

This list could go on and on. Your hearing expert will have a much better concept of what problems you should be on the lookout for. But the main point is that lots of of these root causes can be treated. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility that you can minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a quick test to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few bars. What do you hear? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both of ears. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth discussing with 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. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there could be severe consequences.

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