Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. 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 over time while conductive hearing loss occurs suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.
Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow-moving?
When we discuss sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you may feel a little disoriented – and we don’t hold it against you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, here’s a basic breakdown of what we’re talking about:
- Conductive hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss results from an obstruction in the middle or outer ear. This could be because of earwax, inflammation caused by allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and resolving the root issue will generally result in the recovery of your hearing).
- Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by loud sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of instances, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.
Usually, conductive hearing loss happens quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But sometimes it works out differently. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it’s not treated properly because everyone assumes it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.
Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?
To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be practical to take a look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s suppose 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 little quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and a crying baby. So, Steven prudently made an appointment to see someone. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on a lot of work after recovering from a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to mention that recent condition at his appointment. After all, he was worrying about going back to work and most likely left out some other significant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to return if his symptoms didn’t clear up. Rapid 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 if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have significant consequences.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours
SSNH can be caused by a variety of conditions and events. Including some of these:
- Traumatic brain injury or head trauma of some kind.
- Particular medications.
- Blood circulation problems.
- A neurological condition.
This list could go on for a while. Whatever problems you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But the point is that many of these root causes can be dealt with. There’s a chance that you can lessen your lasting hearing damage if you treat these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently harmed.
The Hum Test
If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a brief test you can do to get a general idea of where the problem is coming from. And this is how you do it: just start humming. Pick your favorite song and hum a few bars. What do you hear? If your hearing loss is conductive, your humming should sound similar in both ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing professional). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.