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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But we put to rest at least one false belief. Ordinarily, 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 rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss could 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 confused – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss from loud noise. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in the majority of cases the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this form of hearing loss. This might be because of earwax, inflammation caused by allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and managing the underlying problem will generally result in the recovery of your hearing).

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does happen. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be practical to take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He was just getting over a cold and he had lots of work to get caught up on. Maybe, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to talk about his recent illness. Of course, he was thinking about getting back to work and probably left out some other relevant details. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return if his symptoms didn’t clear up. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (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 indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could go on for a while. Whatever problems you should be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But the point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be dealt with. There’s a possibility that you can lessen your lasting hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently harmed.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can do a short test to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Select your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What do you hear? 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 in your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing specialist if the humming is louder on one side because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to point out the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for your appointment.

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