What is Sensorineural Hearing Loss? - Attune
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What is Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Are you worried that your hearing isn’t quite what it used to be? Whether you’ve already had a hearing test and have been diagnosed or are only just considering having your hearing checked, knowing the type of hearing loss you have is vital in determining which treatment option will work best for you.

After careful assessment, sensorineural hearing loss has been diagnosed in 90 per cent of hearing loss cases in adults. 

Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is a permanent type of hearing loss that occurs when a problem with either the inner ear or the auditory nerve prevents or weakens the nerve signals sent to the brain. 

Depending on the degree of damage to the internal ear structures, SNHL can present in various degrees of hearing impairment, from mild to profound hearing loss. 

Degrees of Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Mild SNHLLoss of hearing between 26 to 40 decibels

  • Characterised by difficulties understanding speech in background noise
Moderate SNHLLoss of hearing between 41 to 55 decibels

  • Difficulties in one-on-one conversations, even without background noise
  • Having to ask people to repeat themselves a lot – in person and on the phone
Severe SNHLLoss of hearing above 71 decibels

  • Can’t understand people without the use of hearing aids or other amplification devices
  • Can usually only hear extremely loud conversations or sounds

Only an accredited audiologist can diagnose and treat this type of hearing loss.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss vs. Conductive Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss is only one form of hearing loss. The other, less common types of hearing loss include conductive hearing loss and mixed hearing loss, a combination of the two. 

Conductive hearing loss means the sound cannot reach the inner ear, usually due to an obstruction or trauma to the ear or head. Depending on the cause, conductive hearing loss can be temporary or permanent. 

Causes of Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Image source: Hough Ear Institute

Causes of Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Damage to the structures in your inner ear or your auditory nerve can be a result of 

exposure to loud noises, the natural aging process, as well as genetic factors. SNHL can therefore be congenital (present at birth) or acquired later in life – which is more typical.  

To understand the causes of sensorineural hearing loss, you’ll have to know a few things about your ear anatomy.

The ear comprises three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear.

Sensorineural hearing loss affects the spiralling organ inside your inner ear. This organ is also called ‘cochlea’. It contains tiny hairs known as ‘stereocilia’. 

These hair cells have an essential function: They convert sound vibrations into neural signals. Those signals are then carried to your brain via the auditory nerve.  

  • Noise Exposure

Exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can permanently damage these hairs, causing sensorineural hearing loss. 

But as we’ve just learned, there are other potential causes of SNHL – besides noise exposure. 

  • Genetic Factors 

Gene mutations can also lead to hearing loss. More than 100 genes are known to cause genetic hearing loss. 

Congenital hearing loss or hearing loss at birth affects about three babies per 1.000 births. That makes congenital hearing loss one of the most common birth abnormalities.

  • Presbycusis

Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, is usually caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors, including excessive noise exposure and certain medications. 

About one in three people above the age of 65 have age-related hearing loss. By the age of 75, this number increases to 50 per cent of people. 


Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL)

As the name suggests, sudden sensorineural hearing loss is a sudden hearing impairment of at least 30 decibels within three days or instantly – often overnight. 

One to six people per 5.000 every year experience sudden sensorineural hearing loss, often only in one ear. SSHL may be accompanied by a ringing in their ears (tinnitus), a feeling of fullness or clogged ears and dizziness.

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss can have a range of causes, including:

  • Bacterial or viral infections
  • Blood circulation problems
  • Head or ear trauma
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Certain drugs or medications

If you are experiencing sudden hearing loss, do not delay seeking medical attention! Sudden deafness indicates a medical emergency and requires immediate care to give you the best chance of regaining your hearing.

Sudden hearing loss may be treated with corticosteroids over two weeks. But the more time passes before you seek help, the less likely treatment success and the restoration of your hearing become. 

Sensorineural Hearing Loss Treatment

As of today, there’s no surgical option to treat or reverse sensorineural hearing loss.

If you have been diagnosed with SNHL, your audiologist will likely suggest one of two options: Hearing aids or cochlear implants.

While neither one will restore your natural hearing, they can compensate for some of the hearing loss that you experience. 

In better news: Gene therapy for sensorineural hearing loss has shown promising results by potentially helping to induce hair cell regeneration. At this time, gene therapy is not yet clinically used for SNHL in Australia or the United States.  

Hearing Aids for Sensorineural Hearing Loss 

Since SNHL is permanent, modern hearing aids can mimic normal hearing. The latest devices can match specific hearing loss symptoms and can be personalised to suit your needs and preferences.

Cochlear Implants for Sensorineural Hearing Loss 

In severe cases of hearing loss, cochlear implants can be used to directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The placement of the device does require invasive surgery, which is why it is only used in patients that experience little benefit from hearing aids. 

Sensorineural Hearing Loss Prognosis

Sensorineural Hearing Loss Prognosis

Sensorineural hearing loss can be frightening, particularly when experienced suddenly and without warning. 

About 60 per cent of patients experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss recover within a month. The percentage rapidly declines if people present with certain prognostic indicators.

If you are diagnosed with sudden SNHL, your prognosis will depend on a range of factors, including:

  • The duration of your hearing loss
  • Whether you also experience vertigo and tinnitus
  • Or/and have hypertension and/or diabetes

The outlook also depends on the cause of hearing loss. Whilst up to 85 per cent of people will experience at least a partial recovery, in most cases, SNHL is permanent.

  • Does sensorineural hearing loss get worse?

Without seeking immediate medical attention, SNHL may progress over time. If caused by noise exposure or environmental factors, symptoms may also plateau at the current level – given that you avoid the cause of your hearing impairment in the future. 

Do you have questions or concerns about your hearing? Don’t hesitate to contact the friendly team at Attune Hearing or schedule an appointment at an Attune Audiologist near you! 

For enquiries or to make a booking, simply give us a call at 1300 736 702 or send us an email.

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