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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss may be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one mistaken impression. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Develop sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Usually Slow Moving?

When we discuss sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we mean:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this form of hearing loss. This might include anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will come back when the underlying obstruction is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is commonly caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss from loud noise. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most cases the damage is irreversible.

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But occasionally it works out differently. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be practical 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 in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and crying baby. So, Steven smartly made an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on some work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps, during his appointment, he forgot to talk about his recent illness. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and probably left out some other important info. And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. 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 just fine. But if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

There are a wide variety of events or ailments which may cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

  • Problems with blood circulation.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Inflammation.
  • Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.
  • Certain medications.

This list could go on and on. Your hearing professional will have a much better understanding of what problems you should be watching for. But quite a few of these root problems can be managed and that’s the significant point. There’s a chance that you can minimize your lasting hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a short test to get a general understanding of where the issue is coming from. And here’s how you do it: hum to yourself. Just hum a few measures of your favorite song. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you’re hearing is coming from in your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss could be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing professional). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there may be serious repercussions.

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