Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over time. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow-moving?

When we talk about 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, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss results from a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This could be because of earwax, swelling caused by allergies or lots of other things. Usually, your hearing will return when the underlying blockage is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most cases the damage is irreversible.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone assumes it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it might be helpful to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven wisely made an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent ailment at his appointment. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and most likely forgot to mention some other relevant info. And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and told to return 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 if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

There are a wide array of situations or conditions which might cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing professional will have a much better concept of what issues you should be looking out for. But a lot of these root problems can be treated and that’s the significant point. There’s a possibility that you can lessen your lasting hearing damage if you deal with these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently harmed.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a short test you can do to get a general concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: just start humming. Select your favorite song and hum a few measures. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both of your 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 own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the loss of hearing could be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing expert). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there may be severe consequences.