Illini Hearing - Champaign and Mahomet, IL

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we put to rest at least one mistaken impression. Typically, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be wrongly diagnosed.

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

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could be difficult to comprehend. So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form 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 intense noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of instances the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This could be because of earwax, inflammation caused by allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and resolving the underlying issue will usually bring about the restoration of your hearing).

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, 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 somewhat often, it may be practical to 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 out of his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven prudently made an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was just getting over a cold and he had a lot of work to get caught up on. Maybe he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent illness at his appointment. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and most likely forgot to mention some other important details. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was told to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss happens suddenly (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 significant consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

There are a wide array of events or conditions which may cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

  • A neurological condition.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • Blood circulation problems.
  • Some medications.
  • Inflammation.

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better understanding of what issues you should be watching for. But many of these hidden problems can be treated and that’s the significant point. There’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re having 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 fairly simple: hum to yourself. Pick your favorite song and hum a few measures. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you’re hearing is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to point out the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for your appointment.

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