Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But we put to rest at least one false belief. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you as time passes. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

When we discuss 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 dizzying). So, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss caused by loud noise. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this form of hearing loss. This might include anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and managing the underlying issue will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that isn’t always the situation. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it might be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. 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. Maybe he wasn’t sure to mention that recent illness during his appointment. Of course, he was thinking about getting back to work and probably forgot to mention some other significant information. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. 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 just fine. But if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

SSNH could be caused by a wide variety of conditions and situations. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever concerns you need to be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But the point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be handled. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility that you can reduce your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can perform to get a general concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly simple: just begin humming. Choose your favorite song and hum a few bars. What do you hear? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing specialist if the humming is louder on one side because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for an exam.