HEARING TIPS

Why Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Gets Missed

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have some misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Alright – not everything is wrong. But we can clear up at least one false belief. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over time. 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 might feel a little confused – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we’re talking about:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear has blockage it can cause this form of hearing loss. This could include anything from allergy-driven swelling to earwax. Usually, your hearing will return when the underlying obstruction is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This type of hearing loss is usually caused by 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. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t become worse in the majority of cases the damage is irreversible.

It’s common for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss happens somewhat suddenly. But that’s not always the situation. Even though 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 assumes it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed somewhat frequently, it might be helpful to have a 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 out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and a crying baby. So, Steven smartly made an appointment to see someone. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was just getting over a cold and he had a lot of work to catch up on. Perhaps, while at his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent illness. And maybe he even accidentally omitted some other important information (he was, after all, already stressing over getting back to work). And so Steven was prescribed with some antibiotics and was told to come back if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. Rapid onset of sensorineural hearing loss is fairly rare (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 could have substantial repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Whatever problems you need to be watching for can be better understood by your hearing expert. But the point is that lots of of these hidden causes can be handled. There’s a chance that you can reduce your lasting hearing damage if you deal with these hidden causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re experiencing a bout of sudden hearing loss, like Steven, there’s a quick test you can do to get a rough concept of where the issue is coming from. And it’s fairly easy: just start humming. Simply 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 loss of hearing is conductive. (After all, when you hum, most of what you hear is coming from in your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the hearing loss may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing professional). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your overall hearing health, so it’s always a smart idea to mention the possibility with your hearing specialist when you go in for your appointment.

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