What is Sensorineural Hearing Loss?
Updated on: September 2022
Written by: Becky Dotson
Hearing loss is a common problem as you age. And the more profound the hearing loss, the more impact it will have on your everyday life. Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is the most common type of hearing loss among adults. The damage from most forms of SNHL is permanent and can’t be reversed, but there are things you can do to help you hear better and improve your quality of life.
By The Numbers
More than 90 percent of hearing loss in adults is the result of SNHL
As We Age
Adults will typically start losing roughly 1% of their hearing every year starting at age 70
Types of Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss involves the middle or outer ear. Sensorineural involves the inner ear.
Find What You Need
What is Sensorineural Hearing Loss and What Causes It?
Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) occurs when there is damage to either the tiny hair cells inside your inner ear or the nerves that go from your inner ear to the brain. The cochlea is in the inner ear and it’s where you will find tens of thousands of the hair cells that help you hear clearly. The hair cells and the nerve pathways to your inner ear can end up being damaged for many reasons and unfortunately, once they’re damaged, they can’t be repaired. The result is SNHL and the hearing loss from it can be mild to profound.
Some people are born with SNHL, but it most often occurs during your lifetime. Aging is one of the primary reasons for SNHL, but the condition can also be caused by exposure to loud noises. And while long-term exposure will increase your chances of developing it, one-time exposure to extremely loud noises like gunshots or explosions can cause SNHL.
Other causes include:
- Infections like measles, meningitis and mumps that result in high fevers
- Autoimmune disorders like lupus or thyroiditis
- Head trauma
- Tumors in or around the ear
- Certain types of antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications and chemotherapy used to treat cancer
- The formation of your inner ear
What are the Types of Sensorineural Hearing Loss?
When SNHL occurs, how loudly and clearly you hear sounds becomes impaired. There are different types of sensorineural hearing loss, and depending on the cause it can end up affecting one or both your ears.
Bilateral sensorineural hearing loss
This type of SNHL occurs in both ears. The reason you develop it can be as simple as genetics, but long-term exposure to loud noises and having certain types of illnesses can also cause it.
Unilateral sensorineural hearing loss
This type of SNHL generally only affects one ear. It can be caused by something as simple as a loud noise, but certain types of tumors and even Meniere’s disease can cause unilateral SNHL.
Asymmetrical sensorineural hearing loss
If you having hearing loss in both ears, but one is worse than the other that’s called asymmetrical SNHL and is generally caused by aging.
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss
Sometimes, SNHL can happen suddenly – either instantly or over the course of three days. It’s a rare condition that generally only occurs in one ear but should be treated by a doctor immediately. Sudden SNHL can be treated and improved with steroids if you seek medical help as soon as possible after it starts.
What are the Symptoms of Sensorineural Hearing Loss?
It seems logical that the first sign of hearing loss is not being able to hear as well. But for those who end up being diagnosed with SNHL, the first symptom is often dizziness or a ringing in the ear. You may also experience any or all of the following:
- A full feeling or sensation in your ear
- Muffled sounds and voices
- Difficulty understanding speech, especially children or female voices
- Balance problems
- Difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds
- Difficulty hearing sounds over background noise
- Hearing sounds or voices but feeling like you can’t understand them
How is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Diagnosed?
Sensorineural hearing loss has to be diagnosed by a physician and there are several different tests they can use to determine if you have SNHL or if there’s something else going on.
Since hearing loss can be temporary or permanent, and caused by several different things, your doctor will examine your ear to determine the cause. They will look for fluid or earwax buildup, inflammation or damage to your eardrum.
A tuning fork is a tool used to test for hearing loss. It has two prongs and a doctor will strike it to produce a vibration to see if you can hear it. Which ear you can hear the tuning fork with and how loud and how long you hear it can help a doctor determine what type of hearing loss you have.
An audiogram is a hearing test performed by an audiologist – who is a hearing specialist. The test requires you to wear headphones and sit in a soundproof booth to determine how well you can hear different volumes and frequencies of sound.
How is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Treated?
Once you receive a diagnosis of SNHL, the next question is how can it be treated. Unfortunately, it isn’t curable, but there are ways to make it more manageable and improve your hearing to some degree. Hearing aids are probably the best option for most people. There is a wide range of hearing aids on the market with a variety of features. Choosing a hearing aid is an important and personal decision, so be sure to make a list of what’s important to you and seek out hearing aids with those options.
Sometimes, a hearing aid won’t help and the best course of treatment is implants – either a bone-anchored hearing aid (BAHA) or a cochlear implant. A BAHA is surgically placed in the bone behind your ear. It vibrates and sends sounds to your inner ear. It’s suited best for someone with mild hearing loss.
More severe hearing loss may require a cochlear implant. The device is electronic and helps restore your ability to hear sounds and understand speech. Unlike a hearing aid, where you put it on and suddenly just hear things better, a cochlear implant requires some training with audiologists and therapy with speech-language pathologists. The implant itself won’t actually be ‘turned on’ or activated until about month after surgery to give your body time to heal. And it can take several months for you to fully adjust to and benefit from cochlear implants.