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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss might be wrong. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But we put to rest at least one mistaken impression. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops slowly while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Get sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Commonly 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 dizzying). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is normally 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. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most instances the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this type of hearing loss. This might consist of anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will return when the underlying obstruction is cleared away.

Usually, conductive hearing loss comes on quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But that’s not always the case. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially 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 often, it may be practical to take 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 in his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had lots of work to catch up on. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent illness during his appointment. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and most likely forgot to mention some other relevant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms persisted. 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 there could be severe consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

There are a variety of events or ailments which might cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

  • A neurological issue.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • Blood circulation problems.
  • Inflammation.
  • Particular medications.

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better understanding of what problems you should be watching for. But quite a few of these hidden problems can be managed and that’s the most important point. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a chance that you can minimize your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can do a short test to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: hum to yourself. Just hum a few bars of your favorite song. What does the humming sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from inside 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. Inevitably, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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