Why Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss is Sometimes Missed

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over the years. It turns out that’s not necessarily true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be wrongly diagnosed.

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

When we discuss 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 like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this form of hearing loss. This might consist of anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will come back when the underlying blockage is cleared away.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is commonly caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does occur. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s an unusual case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it might be practical to have a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven smartly made an appointment to see someone. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent ailment during his appointment. After all, he was thinking about getting back to work and more than likely left out some other significant details. And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to return if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss comes on suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But there could be serious repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever concerns you should be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But a lot of these underlying conditions can be treated and that’s the significant point. And if they’re treated before injury to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility to lessen your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can do a quick test to get a rough idea of where the problem is coming from. And this is how you do it: just begin humming. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What does the humming sound like? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both of ears. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss might be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing specialist). Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.