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Eastside Audiology - Issaquah, WA Eastside Audiology - Issaquah, WA

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You might have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing worth clearing up. Generally, we think that sensorineural hearing loss comes on gradually while conductive hearing loss happens quickly. It turns out that’s not inevitably true – and that rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be wrongly diagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Normally Slow-moving?

When we consider sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you may feel a little confused – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite disorientating). So, the main point can be categorized in this way:

  • Conductive hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is the result of a blockage in the middle or outer ear. This might consist of anything from allergy-based inflammation to earwax. Normally, your hearing will come back when the underlying blockage is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually due to damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you consider hearing loss caused by loud noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. Although you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in most instances the damage is irreversible.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens fairly suddenly. But sometimes it works out differently. Even though sudden sensorineural hearing loss is very uncommon, it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be especially harmful.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might 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 out of his right ear. His alarm clock seemed quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So, Steven wisely made an appointment for an ear exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to catch up on. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent illness at his appointment. And it’s possible he even inadvertently left out some other significant information (he was, after all, already thinking about getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed some antibiotics and told to return if the symptoms persisted by the time the pills were gone. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is relatively rare (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of situations, Steven would be just fine. But there could be dangerous consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Critical First 72 Hours

There are a variety of situations or conditions which might cause SSNHL. Some of those causes might include:

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

This list could go on for a while. Whatever concerns you need to be paying attention to can be better recognized by your hearing specialist. But many of these root problems can be treated and that’s the most important point. There’s a chance that you can reduce your long term hearing damage if you treat these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves get permanently affected.

The Hum Test

If you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a quick test you can perform to get a rough concept of where the problem is coming from. And this is how you do it: just begin humming. Choose 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. (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 specialist if the humming is louder on one side because it could be sensorineural hearing loss. It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to point out the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for a hearing test.

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