What is sensorineural hearing loss?

Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is one of the most common forms of hearing loss and is due to a problem in the inner ear, the tiny hairs that detect sound, or the nerve that carries signals to the hearing centres in the brain. It is usually permanent and can present suddenly.

Around one in six people in the UK experience some form of hearing loss, with SNHL accounting for nearly 90% of that number.

How sensorineural hearing loss presents

The main difficulty that people who experience SNHL encounter are issues with hearing adequately, particularly in conversations, and markedly so when there is background noise.

The level of hearing loss can vary from small changes in the clarity or loudness of everyday sounds to complete deafness. SNHL usually occurs gradually but some people experience its onset very rapidly.

This can lead to frustration and feelings of isolation. SNHL is common in older people – affecting nearly a quarter of those aged over 65 – but can equally affect people in their 30s or younger.

Causes of sensorineural hearing loss

SNHL is often associated with older age but it can also be caused by exposure to loud noises. There are also hereditary factors which can cause SNHL.

Other risk factors for SNHL include smoking, illness, trauma to the head and certain medications which are harmful to the ear (known as ototoxicity). SNHL can also result from Ménière’s disease, Otosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the ear) and tumours.

There are other rare causes of SNHL. Anecdotally, but with a growing body of evidence, COVID-19 has also been associated with SNHL. At present, the link between coronavirus and SNHL appears to be rare.

Early symptoms can be subtle and only become noticeable with small changes in detecting everyday sounds. Symptoms are often worse upon waking up in the morning.

High-pitched noises are often the first to go. People who develop sensorineural hearing loss may also have difficulty making out quieter noises. Sounds can become muffled, unclear or fuzzy. Additionally, some people with SNHL also experience tinnitus, vertigo or dizziness.

As SNHL often develops slowly over time, it is important to get checked out if you do notice any changes to your hearing. If you experience sudden hearing loss, then this may be classed as a medical emergency and you should seek advice as soon as possible.

After a diagnosis of SNHL, what next?

SNHL is usually permanent and progressive. It cannot be treated with medicine or surgery. Hearing aids and cochlear implants can help elevate the hearing you still have.

Hearing loss can have a significant impact on people, socially, mentally and economically. However, with treatment, people who experience SNHL can live life as normally as possible and still enjoy the things they love.