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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. Normally, 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 Usually Slow Moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little confused – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this form of hearing loss. This might include anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and dealing with the underlying issue will generally result in the recovery of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually 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 become worse in most instances the damage is permanent.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Although 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 especially damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it may be practical to 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 out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to get caught up on some work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent condition during his appointment. Of course, he was worrying about going back to work and more than likely left out some other relevant info. And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss happens suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever concerns you should be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing professional. But the main point is that many of these hidden causes can be dealt with. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility that you can minimize your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can perform to get a rough idea of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: just start humming. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you hear is coming from in your own 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). Ultimately, 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 could be significant repercussions.

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