Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one false impression. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops over time while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This could include anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Normally, your hearing will come back when the primary obstruction is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form 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 loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that isn’t always the situation. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be practical to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on a lot of work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps, during his appointment, he didn’t remember to talk about his recent ailment. And maybe he even inadvertently left out some other important information (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to return if his symptoms didn’t clear up. 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 if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a variety of ailments and situations. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing professional will have a much better idea of what issues you should be watching for. But the point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be dealt with. And if they’re addressed before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance to lessen your long term hearing loss.

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 concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite song. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you hear is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing expert if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing exam, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there may be significant repercussions.