Hearing Services of Nashville

Woman with sudden sensorineural hearing loss holding ears.

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

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

When we consider 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, the main point can be broken down in like this:

  • Conductive hearing loss: When the outer ear becomes blocked it can cause this kind of hearing loss. This could be because of earwax, inflammation caused by allergies or many other things. Conductive hearing loss is commonly treatable (and resolving the underlying issue will usually bring about the restoration of your hearing).
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: This form 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 from loud noise. Even though you may be able to treat sensorineural hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse in the majority of instances the damage is irreversible.

It’s typical for sensorineural hearing loss to happen slowly over time while conductive hearing loss takes place fairly suddenly. But that’s not always the case. Unexpected sensorineural hearing loss (or SSNHL) is somewhat uncommon, but it does exist. If SSNHL is misdiagnosed as a type of conductive hearing loss it can be particularly damaging.

Why is SSNHL Misdiagnosed?

To understand why SSNHL is misdiagnosed fairly frequently, it might be practical to look at a hypothetical interaction. Let’s say that Steven, a busy project manager in his early forties, woke up one morning and couldn’t hear anything out of his right ear. The traffic outside seemed a bit quieter. As did his barking dog and chattering grade-schoolers. So he did the smart thing and scheduled a hearing exam. Needless to say, Steven was in a hurry. He had to catch up on some work after recovering from a cold. Maybe he wasn’t certain to mention that recent illness during his appointment. After all, he was thinking about going back to work and probably forgot to mention some other significant information. So after being prescribed with antibiotics, he was advised to come back if his symptoms persisted. 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 just fine. But there could be dangerous consequences if Steven’s SSNHL was misdiagnosed.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss: The First 72 Critical Hours

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

  • Head trauma of some kind or traumatic brain injury.
  • Inflammation.
  • A neurological condition.
  • Blood circulation problems.
  • Particular medications.

This list could go on for a while. Whatever issues you should be watching for can be better understood by your hearing professional. But many of these underlying problems can be managed and that’s the main point. And if they’re treated before damage to the nerves or stereocilia becomes permanent, there’s a chance to lessen your long term loss of hearing.

The Hum Test

If you’re like Steven and you’re having a bout of sudden hearing loss, there’s a short test you can do to get a rough understanding of where the issue is coming from. And this is how you do it: just begin humming. Pick your favorite song and hum a few bars. What do you hear? Your humming should sound the same in both ears if your hearing loss is conductive. (Most of what you’re hearing when you hum, after all, is coming from inside your head.) If your humming is louder on one side than the other, the loss of hearing may be sensorineural (and it’s worth pointing this out to your hearing expert). 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 good idea to mention the possibility because there may be serious repercussions.

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