Sometimes Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Isn’t Identified, But What’s The Reason?

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one false impression. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be wrongly diagnosed.

When You Get sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Commonly Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may be hard to comprehend. So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we mean:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by intense noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Even though you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in the majority of instances the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this type of hearing loss. This might be due to earwax, inflammation caused by allergies or many other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and managing the root issue will generally result in the recovery of your hearing).

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that’s not always the situation. Although 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 harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it might be helpful 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 anything in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent ailment during his appointment. And maybe he even inadvertently left out some other relevant info (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 didn’t clear up. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

SSNH could be caused by a range of ailments and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on and on. Your hearing expert will have a much better concept of what concerns you should be on the lookout for. But many of these underlying conditions can be managed and that’s the most important point. There’s a possibility that you can minimize your lasting hearing damage if you deal with these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can do to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And here’s how you do it: hum to yourself. Just hum a few measures of your favorite song. What does it sound like? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional if the humming is louder on one side because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there may be significant consequences.

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