Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss may be incorrect. 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. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be misdiagnosed.

When You Develop sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Generally 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 disorientating). So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is commonly caused by 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 cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This might include anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Normally, your hearing will come back when the primary obstruction is cleared away.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, 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 morning 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 he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing test. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on some work after getting over a cold. Maybe, while at his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent condition. And it’s possible he even accidentally left out some other significant information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

SSNH could be caused by a variety of ailments and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you need to be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing specialist. But the point is that lots of of these root causes can be managed. There’s a chance that you can minimize your long term hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a brief test to get a general understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: hum to yourself. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What do you hear? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss may 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. That can have some consequences for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for your appointment.