Why Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Gets Missed

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there’s at least one thing worth clearing up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may seem hard to understand. So, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this form of hearing loss. This might consist of anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and dealing with the root problem will generally result in the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is normally due to 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. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.

Commonly, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But occasionally it works out differently. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone assumes it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be helpful to take a look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a lot of work to get caught up on. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent condition during his appointment. After all, he was thinking about going back to work and more than likely left out some other important info. 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). And so, in most cases, Steven would be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

SSNH could be caused by a range of conditions and events. Including some of these:

  • Inflammation.
  • A neurological issue.
  • Problems with blood circulation.
  • Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.
  • Certain medications.

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing professional will have a much better idea of what concerns you should be watching for. But the main point is that lots of of these underlying causes can be treated. 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 going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a brief test you can do to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty easy: hum to yourself. Simply hum a few bars of your favorite song. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional if the humming is louder on one side because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a 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 bring up the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.