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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Alright – not everything is wrong. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on slowly while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

When You Develop sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Generally Slow Moving?

When we discuss sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you might 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 this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is the result of an obstruction in the outer or middle ear. This could consist of anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Normally, your hearing will come back when the underlying obstruction is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is commonly caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss caused by loud noise. Although you might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most cases the damage is irreversible.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. 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 frequently, it may be helpful to look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say 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 barking dog and crying baby. So, Steven smartly scheduled an appointment to see someone. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on a lot of work after recovering from a cold. Maybe, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to talk about his recent illness. And maybe he even unintentionally left out some other significant info (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in most situations, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Your hearing specialist will have a far better idea of what problems you should be watching for. But the main point is that many of these root causes can be treated. There’s a possibility that you can reduce your lasting hearing damage if you address these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a brief test you can perform to get a general concept of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: just start humming. Just hum a few measures of your favorite tune. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing specialist if the humming is louder in one ear because it might 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 test, it’s a good idea to mention the possibility because there may be severe repercussions.

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