Hear in Edmonton - Edmonton, Alberta

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have some misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one mistaken impression. Normally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss occurs quickly. 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 could feel a little confused – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, the main point can be broken down in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This might be because of earwax, inflammation from allergies or many other things. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and dealing with the underlying issue will usually bring about the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is commonly due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by intense sounds, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is essentially permanent, although there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

Usually, conductive hearing loss comes on quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But sometimes it works out differently. Although sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be particularly damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone assumes it’s an unusual case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it may be practical to look at a hypothetical interaction. 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. The traffic outside seemed a little quieter. So, too, did his barking dog and crying baby. So, Steven wisely scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to get caught up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Maybe he wasn’t sure to mention that recent illness during his appointment. Of course, he was thinking about going back to work and more than likely left out some other significant info. And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. Sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). So, Steven would normally be just fine. But if Steven was indeed suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The All-important First 72 Hours

There are a wide variety of events or ailments which may cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

  • Problems with blood circulation.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Particular medications.
  • Inflammation.
  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.

This list could go on for a while. Whatever issues you need to be watching for can be better understood by your hearing specialist. But the point is that lots of of these root causes can be dealt with. There’s a possibility that you can lessen your lasting 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 experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a brief test you can perform to get a rough idea of where the issue is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: just start humming. Just hum a few bars of your favorite tune. What does the humming sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (Most 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 might be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing professional). Inevitably, it’s possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to point out the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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