Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one mistaken belief. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops over time while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Develop sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Commonly Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may seem difficult to comprehend. So, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This could be because of earwax, swelling caused by allergies or lots of other things. Usually, your hearing will come back when the primary blockage is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of 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 degenerating further.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But that isn’t always the case. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does occur. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it isn’t treated correctly 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 look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine 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 sounded quieter. So, too, 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 a lot of work to catch up on. Maybe he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent condition during his appointment. And maybe he even unintentionally left out some other significant info (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a much better idea of what issues you should be looking out for. But the point is that many of these hidden causes can be handled. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility to minimize your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a short test you can perform to get a general idea of where the issue is coming from. And here’s how you do it: hum to yourself. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What does the humming sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (Most 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 loss of hearing could be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some repercussions 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 your appointment.