Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss and is present in nearly 25% of all Americans older than 65. But what exactly is sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL)? SNHL indicates that there is a problem with either the cochlea, auditory nerve, or the auditory centers in the brain. Conductive hearing loss, on the other hand, means that there is a problem with the mechanism that conducts sound to the inner ear—issues with the ear canal, ear drum, or ear bones can all cause conductive hearing loss.
There are many factors that can lead to sensorineural hearing loss. Aging is one of the most common, and SNHL due to advanced age typically occurs gradually, in both ears. Ototoxic medications, such as those used to treat heart disease and cancer, can also result in SNHL. Genetics, diseases infection, trauma, and prolonged noise exposure are other possible causes of SNHL.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss and Aging
Hearing loss due to aging is called presbycusis, and is the most common cause of sensorineural hearing loss. Because hearing loss occurs gradually, rather than suddenly as with some infections or trauma, most people do not realize that they are losing some of their ability to hear. There is no single cause of age-related hearing loss—for most people, it is brought on by inner ear changes that naturally occur as we age, compounded by exposure to loud, environmental noise over the years. This type of sensorineural hearing loss can also be caused by changes in blood supply to the ear, often due to heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes-related vascular conditions. Presbycusis is most greatly associated with losing the ability to hear high-pitched sounds, such as a telephone ring or a woman’s voice.
Addressing Sensorineural Hearing Loss
If you’re diagnosed with SNHL, you are most likely wondering how to manage it. Depending on the cause, there are many different ways to treat and manage sensorineural hearing loss. Emergency surgery can be successful to people who have suffered SNHL due to head trauma or sudden changes in air pressure, as with on an airplane. SNHL can also be due to tumors, so surgery to remove these tumors from the hearing nerve may preserve some degree of hearing for patients.
Corticosteroids are often first-line treatment for several causes of SNHL. If the hearing loss is due to noise exposure (called acoustic trauma), corticosteroids reduce inner ear swelling and inflammation may help mitigate the damaged ear structures. Hearing loss due to a viral infection or autoimmune inner ear disease can also be managed with corticosteroids. The most common type of SNHL, however, is irreversible sensorineural hearing loss, and hearing aids are often the best choice to manage SNHL.