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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

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

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

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form 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. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most cases the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss results from a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This could be due to earwax, swelling caused by allergies or many other things. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and managing the underlying problem will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

Commonly, conductive hearing loss happens quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But occasionally it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat 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 fairly frequently, it may be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and a crying baby. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing test. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe, during his appointment, he forgot to bring up his recent ailment. And maybe he even inadvertently left out some other important info (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. 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 just fine. But there could be severe consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

There are a wide array of events or conditions which might cause SSNHL. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could keep going for, well, quite a while. Whatever concerns you should be watching for can be better understood by your hearing professional. But the point is that many of these hidden causes can be handled. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can do a quick test to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Select your favorite song and hum a few bars. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both of ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing specialist 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 test, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there may be serious repercussions.

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