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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be misdiagnosed.

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 understand. So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by intense noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most cases the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This could be due to earwax, swelling from allergies or many other things. Normally, your hearing will come back when the primary blockage is cleared away.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be practical to have a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing test. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was just getting over a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Maybe, during his appointment, he didn’t remember to bring up his recent illness. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and most likely forgot to mention some other significant details. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms persisted. Sudden 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 cases, Steven would be ok. But there could be severe consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

There are a variety of situations or conditions which may cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

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

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a quick test you can do to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly simple: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite song. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you’re hearing is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing specialist if the humming is louder on one side because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there could be significant repercussions.

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