Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be misdiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow Moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little confused – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This could consist of anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Usually, your hearing will return when the primary obstruction is cleared away.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does happen. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it might be helpful to have 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 out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven prudently scheduled an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on some work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to mention that recent condition during his appointment. And maybe he even inadvertently omitted some other important information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (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 significant consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

There are a wide array of events or ailments which could cause SSNHL. Some of those causes might include:

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

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

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a quick test to get a rough understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: just start humming. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What do you hear? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both of ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the loss of hearing might be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing professional). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to point out the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for an exam.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.
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