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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have some misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be misdiagnosed.

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

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may seem difficult to understand. So, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form 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 noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this form of hearing loss. This could be due to earwax, swelling caused by allergies or lots of other things. Normally, your hearing will come back when the underlying blockage is cleared up.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But that’s not always the situation. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly harmful.

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 imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing test. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had a ton of work to get caught up on. Perhaps, during his appointment, he didn’t remember to talk about his recent illness. And it’s possible he even accidentally omitted some other important information (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms persisted 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 dangerous consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

  • Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.
  • Certain medications.
  • Inflammation.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Problems with blood circulation.

This list could go on and on. Whatever problems you should be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing professional. But the main point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be dealt with. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility that you can reduce your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a brief test to get a rough idea of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for your appointment.

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