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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one mistaken belief. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss happening all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over time. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be misdiagnosed.

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

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you may feel a little confused – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, the main point can be categorized in like this:

  • 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 caused by loud noise. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most cases the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This might be because of earwax, inflammation from allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and dealing with the underlying problem will generally result in the restoration of your hearing).

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But that isn’t always the case. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it might 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 out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent ailment at his appointment. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and most likely left out some other important information. And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. 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 fine. But there could be dangerous repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

SSNH could be caused by a variety of conditions and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Whatever issues you should be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing professional. But the main point is that many of these root causes can be dealt with. There’s a possibility that you can minimize your lasting hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently affected.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a quick test you can perform to get a rough understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly simple: hum to yourself. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few bars. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you’re hearing is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for your appointment.

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