Sometimes Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Isn’t Identified, But Why?

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be incorrect. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one false impression. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops slowly while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may be hard to understand. So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this form of hearing loss. This might include anything from allergy-based inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and resolving the root issue will generally result in the recovery of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is commonly caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by loud noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. 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 especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, 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 day and couldn’t hear in his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and a crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on some work after recovering from a cold. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent illness during his appointment. And maybe he even accidentally left out some other important info (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). 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 had run their course. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss happens 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 if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

SSNH can be caused by a range of conditions and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better idea of what issues you should be watching for. But many of these underlying problems can be treated and that’s the significant point. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a possibility that you can reduce your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a brief test you can perform to get a rough understanding of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: hum to yourself. Choose your favorite song and hum a few bars. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the loss of hearing could be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there could be significant repercussions.

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