Why Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss is Sometimes Missed

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

Many things you thought you knew about sensorineural hearing loss could be wrong. Okay, okay – not everything is wrong. But there is at least one thing that needs to be cleared up. We’re accustomed to thinking about conductive hearing loss happening all of a sudden and sensorineural hearing loss sneaking up on you as time passes. It so happens that’s not inevitably true – and that sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss may often be wrongly diagnosed.

When You Get sensorineural Hearing Loss, is it Usually Slow Moving?

When we talk about sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss, you could feel a little disoriented – and we don’t blame you (the terms can be quite dizzying). So, here’s a quick breakdown of what we mean:

  • 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. In most instances, sensorineural hearing loss is effectively irreversible, though there are treatments that can keep your hearing loss from further degeneration.
  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This might include anything from allergy-driven inflammation to earwax. Usually, your hearing will come back when the root obstruction is cleared away.

It’s normal for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over a period of time while conductive hearing loss takes place somewhat suddenly. But occasionally it works out differently. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is relatively uncommon, but it does occur. And SSNHL can be especially damaging when it isn’t treated properly because everyone assumes it’s a weird case of conductive hearing loss.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly often, it might be helpful to have a look at a hypothetical situation. 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 sounded quieter. So, too, did his crying kitten and a crying baby. So he did the wise thing and scheduled a hearing test. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He was recovering from a cold and he had a ton of work to get caught up on. Maybe, while at his appointment, he didn’t remember to bring up his recent condition. Of course, he was worrying about going back to work and more than likely left out some other significant info. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms didn’t clear up. 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 just fine. But there could be dangerous consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The Crucial First 72 Hours

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

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

This list could go on and on. Your hearing expert will have a much better understanding of what concerns you should be watching for. But many of these hidden problems 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 possibility that you can minimize your long term hearing loss.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, you can perform a brief test to get a general concept of where the problem is coming from. And it’s fairly straight forward: hum to yourself. Pick your favorite song and hum a few bars. What does it 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 in one ear than the other, the hearing loss might be sensorineural (and it’s worth mentioning this to your hearing specialist). Sometimes it does happen that there is a misdiagnosis between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. That can have some repercussions for your general hearing health, so it’s always a good idea to mention 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.