Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over time. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be wrongly diagnosed.

When You Get sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Generally Slow Moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little confused – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, the main point can be categorized in like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This might include anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will return when the underlying blockage is cleared away.
  • 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. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most cases the damage is irreversible.

Normally, conductive hearing loss comes on rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that isn’t always the case. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. 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 fairly often, it might be helpful to have a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say 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 chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to mention that recent condition at his appointment. And maybe he even inadvertently omitted some other significant information (he was, after all, already stressing about getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to return if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss happens 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 wide variety of conditions and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on and on. Your hearing specialist will have a far better understanding of what issues you should be looking out for. But quite a few of these root problems can be treated and that’s the main point. There’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing damage if you treat these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a quick test to get a rough idea of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty easy: hum to yourself. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What does it sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (Most 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 hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing expert). Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there could be severe repercussions.