Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is estimated to affect 64 million patients in the US and 34 million in Europe. It is one of three types of hearing loss: sensorineural, conductive, and mixed. It’s also the most common form, affecting approximately nine out of ten people with hearing loss.
You can have SNHL in varying degrees of severity - either mild, moderate, severe, or profound. However, once you have it, you have it for life. Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) is the most common cause of sensorineural hearing loss.
Signs of Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) affects the loudness and clarity of sounds, meaning soft sounds can sound too soft and loud sounds can sound too loud, thus reducing the range of sounds you find comfortable.
When you have SNHL it can manifest in an inability to understand others during conversations, although people often report that they can still hear them.
Furthermore, you might have trouble understanding verbal information in public (such as public transport announcements or loudspeakers at stores and work), phone conversations, and hearing high-pitched sounds. You might feel like people talking to you are mumbling or are even experiencing a constant or intermittent ringing or buzzing known as Tinnitus (which is associated with SNHL).
Causes of Sensorineural Hearing Loss
You can have either acquired or congenital SNHL, although acquired hearing loss is much more common.
Acquired sensorineural hearing loss
Acquired SNHL occurs after you are born, and sometimes much later in life. Causes include:
- Aging - this type of hearing loss can occur over a long period of time.
- Loud noise - for example, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can be caused by a one-time loud sound or long-time exposure to sound over 85 dBA
- Head trauma - often, post-traumatic hearing symptoms begin immediately after the trauma
- Infections and disease - such as measles, mumps, meningitis, and other viral infections
- Certain ototoxic medications - such as chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories
- Tumors such as acoustic neuroma and cholesteatoma
Depending on the cause SNHL tends to worsen slowly over time.
Congenital sensorineural hearing loss
Although it is very rare, congenital SNHL (which happens to a developing child during pregnancy) can occur. Prematurity, lack of oxygen during birth, maternal diabetes, infectious diseases passed from the mother to child in the womb such as rubella, jaundice, and even genetics can play a role in causing congenital sensorineural hearing loss.
Newborn screening helps to diagnose children born with hearing loss quickly after birth, allowing fast treatment with hearing aids or cochlear implants which avoids disruption to their early cognitive development.
Inner Ear Damage
Generally affecting both ears, SNHL is the result of damage either to your stereocilia (the tiny hair cells within your inner ear) or to the auditory nerve pathways transmitting information from your inner ear to your brain.
Sensorineural hearing loss is occasionally referred to as ‘nerve deafness’, although this can be misleading with SNHL covering disorders of the hair-cells of the cochlea. The term ‘sensorineural’ actually indicates that there is a cochlear or an eighth nerve lesion.
Can Sensorineural Hearing Loss Lead to Deafness?
Sensorineural hearing loss can gradually worsen over time and can lead to deafness.
In rare cases, you can develop a form of SNHL called sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), involving a rapid loss of hearing (usually in one ear) all at once or over a few days. This can lead to sudden deafness in the affected ear.
People usually notice SSHL first thing in the morning and can have a serious underlying cause (such as head trauma, infection, Meniere’s disease, or circulation problems) so prompt medical treatment is imperative. If you or a loved one experiences these symptoms, contact a doctor right away.
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss is often treated with a prescription of corticosteroids. Taking corticosteroids within two weeks increases your chances of regaining your hearing.
How Does Sensorineural Hearing Loss Affect Speech and Understanding?
If a child has congenital or early acquired hearing loss, their development of speech and language skills can be impacted. As the areas of the brain used for communication may not develop fully when a child has trouble hearing, it can make understanding and talking extremely difficult. Early diagnosis (ideally through screening at birth) and excellent support are needed for the child to become an effective communicator.
For an adult with hearing loss, although your own voice might sound odd to you, your speech should not be affected. However, hearing loss will affect your ability to understand the speech of others which can hinder conversations. If you often mishear others, you might be responding to questions with inappropriate answers. A hearing aid should be able to help with this. If you have hearing loss and aren’t using one, this should be discussed this with your doctor.
Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Classed as a Disability?
Hearing loss can be a disability although, like other impairments, its classification as a disability depends on the severity of the loss and your personal need for accommodations.
Not everyone with SNHL will require special adjustments or support, especially if they are leading a ‘normal hearing life’ through the help of a hearing aid. If you’re struggling with hearing loss, you might be eligible for some extra help.
Useful accommodations include software or electronics that integrate with hearing aids, phones, sign language interpreters, a hearing dog, or work area adjustments in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
If you are no longer able to work because of your hearing loss you might qualify for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) if you meet certain criteria. This can be a huge help as hearing aids are often costly and are not currently covered under Medicare.
Severe hearing loss is a disability under the Social Security Disability Act, so you will need to prove to the SSA that this applies to your case. This financial assistance can help you to pay for your medical examinations and even general living expenses so it is worth looking into.
Treatment for Sensorineural Hearing Loss
The typical treatment for SNHL is a fitted hearing aid tailored to your exact hearing needs. If your hearing loss is severe or profound a cochlear implant may be suggested by your healthcare practitioner as a better option.
If you suspect you have hearing loss, you need to make an appointment with a medical professional for a thorough examination and hearing test. It is important to figure out the cause and extent of your hearing loss, as you might have an underlying condition requiring treatment. Untreated hearing loss can also lead to other health issues later in life (stress, impaired memory, balance issues, dementia), so don’t wait to get some help.
If you receive a diagnosis of sensorineural hearing loss, your physician should talk through your treatment options with you, as the best plan for you will depend on your specific needs.
The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources: