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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. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

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

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could be because of earwax, swelling from allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and managing the underlying issue will generally result in the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is commonly caused by 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. Even though you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most instances the damage is irreversible.

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that isn’t always the case. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven wisely made an appointment to see someone. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on some work after getting over a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent ailment during his appointment. And it’s possible he even accidentally left out some other relevant information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return if his symptoms persisted. 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 if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Your hearing expert will have a far better idea of what issues you should be watching for. But quite a few of these hidden conditions can be treated and that’s the main point. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility to lessen 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 do a quick test to get a general understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly simple: just begin humming. Just hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What does it sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both of ears. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there could be serious consequences.

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