Why Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Gets Missed

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Everything you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be incorrect. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one false impression. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing suddenly and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you over time. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

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

When we consider sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you may feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, the main point can be categorized 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 essentially permanent, 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 include anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Conductive hearing loss is normally treatable (and dealing with the underlying problem will generally bring about the restoration of your hearing).

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that’s not always the case. Despite the fact that sudden sensorineural hearing loss is not very common, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be helpful to take 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 anything in his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven smartly made an appointment for an ear exam. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Perhaps he wasn’t sure to emphasize that recent condition at his appointment. After all, he was worrying about getting back to work and more than likely left out some other significant info. And as a result Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to return if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills had run their course. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of cases, Steven would be ok. But there could be significant repercussions if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Decisive Hours

There are a variety of situations or conditions which may cause SSNHL. Including some of these:

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

This list could continue for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better understanding of what issues you should be watching for. But the point is that many of these root causes can be treated. There’s a chance that you can reduce your lasting hearing damage if you address these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently affected.

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 do to get a rough idea of where the problem is coming from. And it’s pretty simple: just begin humming. Pick your favorite song and hum a few measures. What does it sound like? 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 head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional if the humming is louder on one side because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. Ultimately, it is possible that sudden sensorineural hearing loss could be wrongly diagnosed as conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to bring up the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for an exam.

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.


    Hearing Aids By Tricia Leagjeld

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