Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss might be wrong. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Normally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

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

When we discuss sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you might feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we mean:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is commonly due to 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 instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this type of hearing loss. This might be due to earwax, inflammation from allergies or many other things. Usually, your hearing will come back when the underlying blockage is cleared away.

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that isn’t always the situation. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it’s not treated properly because everyone thinks it’s an unusual case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be practical to have a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear in his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Maybe, while at his appointment, he forgot to talk about his recent ailment. And it’s possible he even accidentally left out some other important information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return if his symptoms persisted. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in most cases, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing expert will have a far better understanding of what concerns you should be watching for. But a lot of these underlying conditions can be treated and that’s the most important point. There’s a chance that you can minimize your lasting hearing damage if you treat these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a short test to get a rough idea of where the problem is coming from. And this is how you do it: just begin humming. Just hum a few bars of your favorite song. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing professional). Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions 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 a hearing test.