Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have some misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This might include anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Normally, your hearing will return when the underlying obstruction is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type 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. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most instances the damage is permanent.

Commonly, conductive hearing loss comes on quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But sometimes it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does occur. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated properly because everyone thinks it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be practical to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and a crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing test. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Maybe he wasn’t sure to mention that recent condition during his appointment. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and most likely left out some other relevant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of situations, Steven would be just fine. But there could be dangerous consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

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

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Your hearing professional will have a much better understanding of what problems you should be watching for. But many of these hidden conditions can be treated and that’s the significant point. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility to minimize your long term loss of hearing.

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 issue is coming from. And it’s fairly simple: hum to yourself. Choose your favorite song and hum a few bars. What does it sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to mention the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for your appointment.