Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one mistaken belief. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss happening suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over time. It turns out that’s not necessarily true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be misdiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow-moving?

When we consider sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you might feel a little confused – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss results from a blockage in the outer or middle ear. This could include anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will come back when the primary blockage is cleared up.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But that’s not always the case. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be especially damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be practical to 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 bit quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly made an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Perhaps, during his appointment, he forgot to bring up his recent condition. After all, he was thinking about going back to work and more than likely left out some other important details. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return 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). And so, in the majority of cases, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have considerable repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

SSNH could be caused by a wide variety of ailments and events. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever concerns you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But the point is that lots of of these root causes can be treated. There’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing damage if you treat these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a short test you can do to get a general idea of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: 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 of ears. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you’re hearing is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing professional if the humming is louder in one ear because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss might be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there may be severe repercussions.