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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one mistaken belief. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Get sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Usually 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 disorientating). So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This could be because of earwax, swelling caused by allergies or lots of other things. Normally, your hearing will return when the underlying obstruction is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is commonly due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss caused by loud noise. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that isn’t always the case. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone assumes it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be helpful to have 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 out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his barking dog and crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing test. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to catch up on. Perhaps, during his appointment, he forgot to bring up his recent condition. After all, he was thinking about getting back to work and most likely forgot to mention some other significant info. And as a result 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. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But there could be significant consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

SSNH can be caused by a wide variety of ailments and situations. Including some of these:

  • Blood circulation problems.
  • Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Some medications.
  • Inflammation.

This list could go on and on. Whatever concerns you should be watching for can be better understood by your hearing professional. But the main point is that many of these root causes can be managed. And if they’re addressed before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a short test you can perform to get a general idea of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty easy: hum to yourself. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few bars. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (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 expert). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to mention the possibility because there could be significant repercussions.

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