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Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions concerning sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, maybe not everything is false. But we can clear up at least one false belief. We’re used to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over time. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss could often be misdiagnosed.

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

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss may seem hard to comprehend. So, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. Your thinking of sensorineural hearing loss when your considering hearing loss caused by loud noise. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most instances the damage is irreversible.
  • Conductive hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This could be due to earwax, inflammation from allergies or lots of other things. Usually, your hearing will come back when the underlying obstruction is cleared away.

Usually, conductive hearing loss happens rather suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves somewhat slowly. But that’s not always the case. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone thinks it’s a strange 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 situation. Let’s say 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. So, too, did his crying kitten and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the practical thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had lots of work to catch up on. Perhaps, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to talk about his recent condition. And maybe he even accidentally left out some other relevant info (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And as a result Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to come back if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss happens suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in most situations, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis could have significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • Blood circulation problems.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Inflammation.
  • Particular medications.

This list could go on for a while. Whatever problems you need to be watching for can be better recognized by your hearing professional. But quite a few of these hidden problems can be managed and that’s the most important point. There’s a chance that you can minimize your lasting hearing damage if you treat these hidden 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, there’s a short test you can do to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: hum to yourself. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few bars. What does it sound like? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) If your humming is louder in one ear than the other, the loss of hearing may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing professional). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to mention the possibility with your hearing professional when you go in for an exam.

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