Sometimes Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Isn’t Identified, But Why?

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you know about sensorineural hearing loss might be incorrect. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one false impression. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss occurring suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over time. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be misdiagnosed.

When You Develop sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Generally Slow Moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss might be difficult to comprehend. So, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss from loud noise. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This could be due to earwax, inflammation caused by allergies or many other things. Conductive hearing loss is usually treatable (and managing the underlying problem will generally bring about the recovery of your hearing).

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 isn’t always the case. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone assumes it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it may be helpful to look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to get caught up on some work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent condition during his appointment. Of course, he was worrying about going back to work and more than likely forgot to mention some other important details. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms persisted. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be fine. But if Steven was really suffering with SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have substantial consequences.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

SSNH can be caused by a wide variety of conditions and situations. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for a while. Your hearing specialist will have a much better concept of what concerns you should be watching for. But the point is that lots of of these root causes can be managed. And if they’re addressed before injury 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 like Steven and you’re going through a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a quick test to get a rough concept of where the problem is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Choose your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What does the humming sound like? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both ears. (After all, when you hum, the majority of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing specialist if the humming is louder on one side because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss may be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to point out the possibility with your hearing professional 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.