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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one mistaken impression. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops slowly while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

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

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may be difficult to comprehend. So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss caused by loud noise. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This could consist of anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and managing the underlying issue will usually bring about the restoration of your hearing).

Usually, conductive hearing loss comes on rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that’s not always the case. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does occur. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it may be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear in his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to get caught up on some work after recovering from a cold. Maybe he wasn’t sure to mention that recent condition during his appointment. And it’s possible he even accidentally left out some other important information (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to return if his symptoms didn’t clear up. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you should be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But the point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be handled. There’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing damage if you address these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a short test to get a general understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: just begin humming. Select your favorite song and hum a few bars. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you’re hearing is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing expert if the humming is louder on one side because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for your appointment.

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