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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be wrong. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one false impression. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops slowly while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. It turns out that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be misdiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

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

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this type of hearing loss. This might be because of earwax, inflammation from allergies or lots of other things. Usually, your hearing will come back when the underlying blockage is cleared away.

Normally, conductive hearing loss happens quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But sometimes it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it may be practical to look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He was just getting over a cold and he had lots of work to catch up on. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to mention that recent condition during his appointment. Of course, he was worrying about getting back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other important details. And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of cases, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

SSNH can be caused by a range of ailments and events. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever issues you need to be watching for can be better understood by your hearing expert. But the main point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be treated. There’s a possibility that you can reduce your lasting hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently impacted.

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 do to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite song. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you hear is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the hearing loss might be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing expert). Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there may be serious repercussions.

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