Ear with sound waves coming out. Sensorineural Hearing Loss and Conductive Hearing Loss.

Sensorineural hearing loss or conductive hearing loss? Does it really matter? Isn’t all hearing loss treated the same?

No, it’s not as Steve found out.

Steve, now 54, had always tried to do what was right to protect his hearing. His father, who was a steelworker, had developed severe sensorineural hearing loss by the time he was 40. He’d seen his father’s struggles to follow conversations with the family.

Steve was committed to not letting that happen to himself.

He never turned the car stereo all the way up even if his wife joked that he was ” no fun”. He wouldn’t even wear headphones.

He’d read every study and taken every precaution to protect the hearing. So Steve was more than shocked when last year he started to notice he was missing things in the conversation.

His wife asked a simple question at the dinner table. He turned to her, a little embarrassed, as he asked her to repeat herself. On more than one occasion his daughter asked him to turn the TV down.

The laughter of his 3-year-old granddaughter building a red, blue and green castle with blocks in the living room sounded distorted. He’d done everything. It wasn’t possible that he too could be developing sensorineural hearing loss. As the weeks went by, it got worse and worse.

He knew what he had to do. He scheduled an appointment with a hearing specialist.

What he found out surprised him.

The Type of Hearing Loss Determines Treatment

Steve went for a hearing evaluation. As he sat on the exam table, he heard a distorted ” hmmm” from the hearing specialist. Then another, as the professional shined a light in his ear. Both sounds rattled through his ear canal like it was a maze.

His hearing specialist had found the problem. Steve didn’t have sensorineural hearing loss, it was conductive hearing loss. He scheduled Steve for a simple, in-office procedure to remove earwax that was so compacted they were surprised he could hear anything.

Which kind of hearing loss do you have? Sensorineural or conductive?

Human ear diagramSensorineural Hearing Loss

This kind of hearing loss is very different. You have tiny hairs, or cilia, in your inner ear that dance with the sound waves that enter the ear. Hearing nerves translate these movements into frequency and volume. Your brain then interprets these frequencies as distinct sounds.

That’s why you recognize the difference between a train whistle, a dog bark or a human voice. it’s why an ” F” and ” S” sound just different enough for language to be understandable.

Your brain tells you how far away it is and how loud it is. But it can’t do it without those tiny hair cells.

What Causes Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

When these cells are damaged, it can lead to sensorineural hearing loss. Hearing loss doesn’t usually happen all at once because you have many of these tiny hairs. But over time, you lose more and more of them. Unlike other cells, these cells can’t heal or grow back.

The most common things that either cause damage or make it worse are:

  • Loud noises
  • Trauma to the head
  • Uncontrolled chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Some medications
  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of exercise
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Auto-immune diseases, which cause the immune system to attack your own cells.

This is the kind of hearing loss that we often associate with aging. Modern science still has no treatment to restore these cells. But the great news is that people with this type of hearing problem can turn to hearing aids as a means to improve their quality of life.

Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss is caused by problems with the outer or middle ear. These issues prevent sound waves from reaching the inner ear.

Damage in this area might be in the ear canal, eardrum, or in the small bones in the middle ear. Earwax isn’t the only possible culprit. Steve could have had other conditions that caused him to develop hearing loss at an earlier age.

What Causes Conductive Hearing Loss?

Those might have been:

  • Infections
  • Bone abnormalities
  • Growth/Tumor
  • Foreign objects stuck in the ear
  • Fluid build-up
  • Genetics / Born with the condition

Steve might even have found out through genetic testing that he’d inherited a gene from his father that caused both other them to develop severe hearing loss earlier in life. But because of Steve’s dad’s profession, it’s more likely that Dad’s hearing loss was caused by loud noise.

How Is Conductive Hearing Loss Treated?

Once a hearing specialist determines what’s causing the conductive hearing loss, they know which treatments will likely allow a person like Steve to hear his wife’s sweet voice clearly again.

A hearing specialist may treat conductive hearing loss with:

  • Obstruction removal, as was the case with Steve
  • Surgery to correct the absence or problems with the ear canal
  • Rebuilding of other parts of the ear that did not develop properly
  • Medications to reduce-fluid build-up/Inflammation
  • Antibiotics to treat an infection
  • Tumor removal and/or slowing tumor growth

When Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss an Emergency?

Some types of sensorineural hearing loss are treatable. If you experience sudden hearing loss, particularly in one ear, this may be inflammation. Left unchecked, it may cause permanent damage.

Sudden hearing loss is an emergency situation regardless of what’s causing it. A hearing specialist or ER doctor will probably prescribe corticosteroids to treat sudden hearing loss.

Mixed Hearing Loss

Some people have a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. You could, for example, have trouble following a conversation while out at a restaurant with friends because of age-related hearing loss. But you might also have earwax, a growth or an infection making matters worse.

If you have mixed hearing loss, your doctor can recommend which type is to be treated first in order to maximize your chances of success.