McDonald Hearing Services - Grand Rapids, MI

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have some misconceptions about sensorineural hearing loss. Alright, perhaps not everything is false. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. Ordinarily, we think that sensorineural hearing loss develops gradually while conductive hearing loss happens suddenly. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

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

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This kind of hearing loss is commonly due to 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 might be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of instances the damage is permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this type of hearing loss. This could be due to earwax, inflammation from allergies or lots of other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and dealing with the underlying issue will usually bring about the restoration of your hearing).

Usually, conductive hearing loss comes on quite suddenly, whereas sensorineural hearing loss moves significantly slower. But that’s not always the situation. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a form of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat often, it might be helpful to 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 anything in his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So, Steven wisely scheduled an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a rush. He had to catch up on a lot of work after getting over a cold. Perhaps he wasn’t certain to emphasize that recent illness during his appointment. And it’s possible he even unintentionally 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 return if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills had run their course. 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 significant repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

There are a wide array of events or conditions which could cause SSNHL. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Whatever problems you should be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing expert. But a lot of these underlying conditions can be managed and that’s the significant point. And if they’re addressed before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance to minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, you can do a quick test to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly simple: hum to yourself. Select your favorite song and hum a few measures. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both of your ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (After all, when you hum, the majority of of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) It’s worth mentioning to your hearing professional if the humming is louder in one ear because it may be sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some consequences for your general hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for an exam.