Sometimes Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Isn’t Recognized, But What’s The Reason?

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there’s at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. Normally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss might seem hard to comprehend. 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 could consist of anything from allergy-based swelling to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and dealing with the underlying issue will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is commonly caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of cases the damage is irreversible.

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

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it may be practical to have a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s imagine that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to get caught up on a lot of work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to mention that recent illness during his appointment. And maybe he even unintentionally omitted some other relevant info (he was, after all, already stressing about getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and was told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be just fine. But there could be significant repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

There are a wide array of events or conditions which could cause SSNHL. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing professional will have a far better understanding of what concerns you should be on the lookout for. But the main point is that many of these underlying causes can be treated. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes irreversible, there’s a possibility to minimize your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can do a quick test to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty straight forward: just start humming. Just 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 hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a good idea to discuss the possibility because there may be significant repercussions.

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.