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Sometimes Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Isn’t Identified, But What’s The Reason?

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one false impression. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops over time while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may be hard to understand. So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we mean:

  • 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 the majority of instances the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This might include anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Usually, your hearing will return when the root blockage is cleared up.

Normally, conductive hearing loss comes on rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But sometimes it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone assumes it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be helpful to have a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s say 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 bit quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to get caught up on. Perhaps, during his appointment, he forgot to talk about his recent illness. And it’s possible he even unintentionally omitted some other significant information (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return if his symptoms persisted. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of cases, Steven would be ok. But there could be severe consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

  • Inflammation.
  • Problems with blood circulation.
  • Specific medications.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing professional will have a far better idea of what issues you should be looking out for. But the point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be dealt with. There’s a possibility that you can reduce your long term hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a short test to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: just start humming. Choose your favorite song and hum a few measures. What does the humming sound like? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you’re hearing is coming from in 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 mentioning this to your hearing specialist). Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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