Hearing Health Blog

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have some misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one false impression. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops slowly while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. It so happens that’s not necessarily true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss might often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow-moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you may feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is normally caused by 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. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in most cases the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This could be due to earwax, swelling caused by allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and resolving the root problem will generally bring about the recovery of your hearing).

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But that isn’t always the situation. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone thinks it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it might 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 morning and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and a crying baby. So, Steven smartly scheduled 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. Perhaps, during his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent condition. And maybe he even accidentally left out some other relevant info (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But there could be significant consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

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

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing expert will have a much better concept of what problems you should be watching for. But a lot of these underlying problems can be treated and that’s the most important point. There’s a possibility that you can reduce your lasting hearing damage if you deal with these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently damaged.

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 here’s how you do it: just begin humming. Choose your favorite song and hum a few measures. What does it sound like? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (After all, when you hum, the majority of what you’re hearing is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the loss of hearing may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing specialist). Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be misdiagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to point out the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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