Why Isn’t Sudden Sensorineural Always Recognized

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’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops over time while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could seem hard to comprehend. So, the main point can be categorized in like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could be due to earwax, swelling caused by allergies or many other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and managing the root problem will usually result in the recovery of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is normally due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by intense noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it’s not treated properly because everyone assumes it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it may be helpful to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven wisely made an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Maybe, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to mention his recent illness. And maybe he even accidentally left out some other important information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms persisted 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 most cases, Steven would be ok. But there could be dangerous repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better idea of what concerns you should be looking out for. But the point is that many of these root causes can be treated. There’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing damage if you address these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently affected.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a quick test to get a rough concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: just start humming. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few bars. What does the humming sound like? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, 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 might be sensorineural hearing loss. Inevitably, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.


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