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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one false impression. Normally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss might seem difficult to comprehend. So, the main point can be categorized in like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this form of hearing loss. This could be due to earwax, inflammation caused by allergies or many other things. Usually, your hearing will return when the root blockage is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type 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. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most instances the damage is irreversible.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. 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 somewhat often, it may be practical to take 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 anything in his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his barking dog and a crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, 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 he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent ailment at his appointment. After all, he was thinking about going back to work and more than likely left out some other significant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to come back if his symptoms persisted. 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 most situations, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was indeed suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

SSNH could be caused by a wide variety of ailments and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Whatever concerns you need to be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing professional. But the point is that many of these hidden causes can be managed. There’s a chance that you can lessen your lasting hearing damage if you treat these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a brief test you can do to get a rough concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: just begin humming. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing expert). Inevitably, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be misdiagnosed 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 consequences.

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