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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss may be incorrect. Alright – not everything is wrong. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops over time while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow Moving?

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could include anything from allergy-based inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and managing the underlying issue will generally result in the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is commonly caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially permanent, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But that’s not always the case. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated properly 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 might be helpful to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose 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 sounded quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to catch up on. Maybe, while at his appointment, he forgot to talk about his recent ailment. After all, he was worrying about going back to work and most likely left out some other important information. And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of situations, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

SSNH could be caused by a wide variety of ailments and situations. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better idea of what issues you should be watching for. But quite a few of these underlying conditions can be managed and that’s the significant point. There’s a possibility that you can minimize your long term hearing damage if you address these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently impacted.

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 issue is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: just begin humming. Select your favorite song and hum a few measures. What do you hear? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both of ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss might be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing professional). Inevitably, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there may be significant consequences.

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