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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing worth clearing up. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you as time passes. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Develop sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Usually Slow Moving?

When we consider sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little confused – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss caused by loud noise. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of cases the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss results from a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This could be because of earwax, swelling caused by allergies or many other things. Normally, your hearing will return when the primary blockage is cleared away.

Normally, conductive hearing loss comes on rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But occasionally it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does occur. 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 anything in his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Perhaps, during his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent illness. And maybe he even accidentally omitted some other important information (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 persisted by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be 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 ailments and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on for a while. Whatever issues you should be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But the point is that many of these hidden causes can be managed. There’s a possibility that you can minimize your long term hearing damage if you deal with these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a quick test you can do to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: just start humming. Pick your favorite song and hum a few measures. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing specialist if the humming is louder in one ear because it might 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 could be serious consequences.

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