Why Isn’t Sudden Sensorineural Always Noticed

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be wrong. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one false impression. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops over time while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss might be hard to comprehend. So, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could be because of earwax, swelling from allergies or lots of other things. Normally, your hearing will return when the primary blockage is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually 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. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

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. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be practical to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven wisely scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, 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 illness at his appointment. And maybe he even inadvertently omitted some other significant information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back 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 situations, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have considerable consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

SSNH can be caused by a range of ailments and events. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever concerns you should be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing expert. But the point is that many of these underlying causes can be managed. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility that you can minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can do a brief test to get a rough concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: hum to yourself. Pick your favorite song and hum a few measures. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you’re hearing is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the loss of hearing might be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there may be significant consequences.

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