Sensorineural Hearing Loss: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

If you have been diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss, you are not alone. Of the three key types of hearing loss – sensorineural, conductive, and mixed – sensorineural hearing loss is the most common, with 200,000 cases annually in the U.S.

What is sensorineural hearing loss?

Sensorineural hearing loss, also known as SNHL, occurs when the inner ear is damaged. Typically, this means the hair cells of the inner ear are damaged, or, “problems with the auditory nerve or anywhere along the central auditory pathways can cause SNHL,” said Rosette R. Reisman, AuD, who heads the Audiology department for Northwell Health's Physician Partners at Lenox Hill, and is an associate professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. It can be classed as mild to profound, depending on the degree of loss.

Sensorineural hearing loss

Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is most commonly caused by damaged hair cells inside the inner ear, or cochlea.

SNHL may affect one or both ears, and while it can happen suddenly, it typically occurs gradually. It is permanent, but there are ways to minimize its impact, which we discuss below.

What are the causes of sensorineural hearing loss?

The causes of SNHL are generally categorized as either “congenital” or “acquired.” Congenital means the condition was present at birth. Acquired hearing loss is more common and happens at any point in your lifetime.

“The majority of sensorineural hearing losses are a result of a genetic disorder, aging, a history of noise exposure at work or recreationally,” explains Reisman. Aging is a very common culprit: Age-related hearing loss, sometimes called presbycusis, impacts 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 74 in America.

Other causes of SNHL include the following:

  • Ototoxic medications: Some medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, can cause damage hearing.
  • Head trauma: Head injury that causes damage to the hearing hair cells or auditory nerve can cause SNHL.
  • Malformation of the inner ear: Sometimes, the delicate structures of a baby's inner ear responsible for hearing do not form correctly during pregnancy. This can result in congenital SNHL.
  • Illnesses and/or high fever: Viral infections such as measles, meningitis, and mumps can damage the inner ear structures or cause inflammation.
  • Tumors on the auditory nerve: An acoustic neuroma (aka vestibular schwannoma), or a growth on the hearing nerve or along the central auditory pathway, can cause hearing loss.

What are some common symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss?

Symptoms may differ depending on the severity of the loss and the frequencies affected. SNHL generally affects the loudness of sounds and your ability to understand speech. “Individuals with any degree or configuration of hearing loss will begin to notice a deterioration of their communication abilities,” Reisman told HearingTracker. “Often, this is noted when trying to have conversations in the presence of background noise.”

Other symptoms of SNHL include:

  • Difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds such as children’s voices and birdsong.
  • People’s voices sound muffled.
  • Ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus.
  • Dizziness or balance problems.
  • Trouble understanding speech over the phone.
  • Sensitivity to certain sounds, sometimes causing pain.

Are there treatments for sensorineural hearing loss?

“Treatment is usually dependent on the cause and the degree of hearing loss,” according to Reisman. “For permanent sensorineural hearing losses that do not have a medical or surgical treatment, more often than not, patients will benefit from some form of a hearing device, whether it is a hearing aid or a cochlear implant. This is dependent on the degree of hearing loss.”

Hearing aids help by amplifying the sounds you can’t easily hear. For more severe losses, cochlear implants may be a better option. A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device. It provides a sense of hearing by electronically stimulating the auditory nerve.

“One of the benefits to pursuing amplification is that it often can treat or improve other co-occurring disorders like tinnitus and imbalance,” explains Reisman.

When to see a doctor

If you are worried about your hearing, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a qualified hearing healthcare specialist. They can perform a complete hearing examination and tests to determine the best treatment option.