Louisville Family Audiology - Louisville, KY

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have some misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over time. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow Moving?

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This might consist of anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and dealing with the root problem will usually bring about the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most instances the damage is permanent.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that isn’t always the case. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it might be practical to 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 in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing test. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on some work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent condition during his appointment. After all, he was worrying about going back to work and probably forgot to mention some other important details. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms persisted. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (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 really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

SSNH can be caused by a variety of conditions and situations. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better concept of what problems you should be on the lookout for. But a lot of these underlying conditions can be managed and that’s the most important point. There’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing damage if you deal with these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can perform a brief test to get a rough concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: just start humming. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What does the humming sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar 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 expert if the humming is louder on one side because it may 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 exam, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there may be serious consequences.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.
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