Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss may be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one mistaken belief. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss happening all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over time. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Usually Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may be difficult 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 kind of hearing loss. This could consist of anything from allergy-based inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and resolving the root problem will generally result in the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud noises, 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.

Commonly, conductive hearing loss comes on rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that isn’t always the case. Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does occur. 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 fairly frequently, it might be practical to have 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 in his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to get caught up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent illness during his appointment. And maybe he even accidentally left out some other significant info (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was 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 cases, Steven would be just fine. But there could be serious repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a much better concept of what issues you should be watching for. But many of these underlying conditions can be treated and that’s the main point. There’s a chance that you can lessen your long term hearing damage if you address these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently impacted.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can do a brief test to get a general concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: just begin humming. Select your favorite song and hum a few measures. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your loss of hearing is conductive. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) It’s worth discussing with your hearing professional if the humming is louder in one ear because it might be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for an exam.