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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops slowly while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

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

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind 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 from loud noise. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most instances the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This might include anything from allergy-based inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and managing the underlying problem will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But that’s not always the case. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type 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 take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear in his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven wisely scheduled an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was just getting over a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Maybe, while at his appointment, he forgot to bring up his recent illness. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and probably forgot to mention some other important information. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to return if his symptoms persisted. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of cases, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have significant consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

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

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

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Whatever problems you should be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But the main point is that lots of of these root causes can be handled. There’s a possibility that you can reduce your lasting hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently affected.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a quick test you can perform to get a general understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: just start humming. Simply hum a few measures of your favorite tune. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing specialist if the humming is louder on one side because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there may be severe consequences.

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