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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on over time while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. 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 Usually Slow Moving?

When we talk about 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 quick breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss results from a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This could consist of anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and dealing with the underlying issue will usually bring about the recovery of your hearing).

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But that isn’t always the case. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. 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 somewhat often, it may be helpful to have a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his barking dog and a crying baby. So, Steven smartly scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to get caught up on. Maybe, during his appointment, he forgot to talk about his recent illness. After all, he was worrying about going back to work and probably left out some other significant details. And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. 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 situations, Steven would be just fine. But there could be dangerous repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing professional will have a far better understanding of what concerns you should be on the lookout for. But quite a few of these root conditions can be treated and that’s the main point. There’s a chance that you can reduce your lasting hearing damage if you deal with these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a quick test you can do to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And here’s how you do it: just start humming. Just hum a few measures of your favorite tune. What do you hear? If your hearing loss 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 inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing specialist if the humming is louder on one side because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there could be significant consequences.

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