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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be wrong. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one mistaken belief. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over the years. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be wrongly diagnosed.

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

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

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this form of hearing loss. This could be because of earwax, swelling caused by allergies or many other things. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and dealing with the underlying issue will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually 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 irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

Usually, conductive hearing loss comes on rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But occasionally it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone thinks 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 take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven prudently scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had a lot of work to catch up on. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent illness during his appointment. After all, he was worrying about going back to work and more than likely left out some other relevant information. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms persisted. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be 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 variety of events or ailments which might cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on and on. Your hearing expert will have a much better concept of what concerns you should be looking out for. But the main point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be managed. There’s a possibility that you can lessen your lasting hearing damage if you address these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a short test you can do to get a general idea of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty easy: hum to yourself. Pick your favorite song and hum a few measures. 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 head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might 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.

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