Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss may be incorrect. Alright – not everything is wrong. But there’s at least one thing worth clearing up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on over time while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. It turns out that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be misdiagnosed.

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

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may seem hard to understand. So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • 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 loud noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Even though you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most instances the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss results from a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This could consist of anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and resolving the root issue will usually result in the restoration of your hearing).

Commonly, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But occasionally it works out differently. Unexpected 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 fairly frequently, it may be practical to have a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine 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 crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly made an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to catch up on. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to mention that recent condition at his appointment. And maybe he even accidentally left out some other relevant information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in most situations, Steven would be just fine. But there could be serious consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever concerns you need to be paying attention to can be better understood by your hearing specialist. But the main point is that many of these hidden causes can be managed. 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 damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a short test you can do to get a general understanding of where the problem is coming from. And this is how you do it: just start humming. Select your favorite tune and hum a few bars. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (Most 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 hearing loss might be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing expert). Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to mention the possibility because there could be serious consequences.