Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have some misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we put to rest at least one false impression. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

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

When we discuss sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you might feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of cases the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss results from a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This might be because of earwax, swelling from allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and resolving the root problem will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, 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 practical to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly made an appointment to see someone. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Maybe, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to bring up his recent condition. Of course, he was worrying about getting back to work and more than likely left out some other relevant info. And so Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But there could be serious consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

There are a variety of events or ailments which could cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

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

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a brief test you can do to get a rough idea of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: hum to yourself. Choose your favorite song and hum a few measures. What do you hear? 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 inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the loss of hearing could be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). 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 bring up the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.