Why Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss Gets Missed

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

You may have certain misconceptions regarding sensorineural hearing loss. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But we put to rest at least one mistaken belief. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss developing all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss creeping up on you over the years. Actually, sudden sensorineural hearing loss often goes undiagnosed.

Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Commonly Slow-moving?

The difference between conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss could seem hard to comprehend. So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we mean:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This might be because of earwax, swelling caused by allergies or many other things. Usually, your hearing will come back when the primary obstruction is cleared up.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form of hearing loss is normally caused by damage to the nerves or stereocilia in the inner ear. When you think of hearing loss caused by intense noises, you’re thinking of sensorineural hearing loss. In the majority of instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively permanent, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from degenerating further.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to occur slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But that’s not always the case. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does happen. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it’s not treated correctly because everyone assumes it’s a strange case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it may be helpful to look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one day and couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. His alarm clock sounded quieter. As did his crying kitten and crying baby. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing assessment. Of course, Steven was in a rush. He had to get caught up on a lot of work after recovering from a cold. Maybe, while at his appointment, he forgot to mention his recent ailment. And maybe 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 come back if the symptoms did not diminish by the time the pills were gone. It’s rare that sensorineural hearing loss occurs suddenly (something like 6 in 5000 according to the National Institutes of Health). And so, in the majority of situations, Steven would be ok. But if Steven was really suffering from SSNHL, a misdiagnosis can have considerable repercussions.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

SSNH can be caused by a range of ailments and situations. Including some of these:

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

This list could go on for, well, quite a while. Your hearing specialist will have a far better understanding of what problems you should be watching for. But many of these hidden conditions can be treated and that’s the significant point. There’s a chance that you can lessen your lasting hearing damage if you address these underlying causes before the stereocilia or nerves become permanently damaged.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can do a quick test to get a rough idea of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: just start humming. Pick your favorite tune and hum a few measures. What does it sound like? If your loss of hearing is conductive, your humming should sound the same in both of ears. (The majority of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your own head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the loss of hearing might be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing specialist). It’s possible that there could be misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. So when you go in for your hearing test, it’s a smart idea to discuss the possibility because there could be significant repercussions.

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