The end result of all three is ultimately the same: impaired hearing or even total deafness. 

However, the distinct cause of each of these classifications has an impact on not only your degree of hearing impairment, but potential treatments. It's therefore essential that you maintain an understanding of each. After all, the more you know, the better equipped you'll be if you experience them. 

What Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

Sensorineural hearing loss is the result of damage to or degradation of organs in the inner ear. The delicate hair cells within the cochlea, known as stereocilia, are the most common culprit. However, sensorineural hearing loss can also be caused by damage to the auditory nerve. 

Sensorineural hearing loss can be bilateral (present evenly in both ears), unilateral (present in only one ear), or asymmetrical (present in both ears, but to an uneven degree). 

What Causes Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

There are a few factors that can result in damage to the inner ear. 

The first and most common is presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss. This largely unavoidable condition is caused by the fact that our bodies gradually degrade as we age. It's general wear and tear, though not everyone experiences it. 

Exposure to harmful levels of noise is another common cause of hearing damage. Our ears aren't intended to spend a ton of time around noise levels higher than 60-70 decibels (dB), roughly the volume of a normal conversation. Noise-related hearing loss typically comes in one of two forms: 

  • Traumatic. Brief exposure to noise levels higher than 120 dB. 
  • Prolonged. Exposure to continuous noise levels between 80-110 dB. 

Sensorineural hearing loss can also be congenitalmeaning it's present from birth. This can be the result of either genetic factors such as mutations or environmental factors such as lack of oxygen during pregnancy. Other potential causes of sensorineural hearing may include head injuries or ototoxic medication

What are the Symptoms of Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

The symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss may include: 

  • Difficulty differentiating between different sounds in loud environments.
  • Trouble understanding speech, particularly spoken by individuals with higher-pitched voices.
  • Vertigo.
  • Dizziness.
  • Tinnitus.
  • Muffled sound. 

In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss has a very gradual onset. People suffering from it may not even realize their hearing is impaired; friends and loved ones often tend to notice the condition first. It's also important to understand that not everyone experiences the same degree of impairment from sensorineural hearing loss — it can range from mild to profound. 

How is Sensorineural Hearing Loss Diagnosed and Treated?

If you suspect you may be suffering from sensorineural hearing loss, the first step is booking an appointment with an audiologist. They'll screen you to determine if your hearing is impaired and then perform tests to determine the particulars of your hearing impairment. This process is both painless and non-intrusive, typically taking the form of an audiogram and a physical examination. 

Once testing is complete, treatment depends mainly on the severity of your hearing impairment. If your hearing loss is relatively mild, you may choose to forego treatment. Similarly, even if you're experiencing severe hearing loss, it's entirely up to you whether or not you choose to receive treatment. 

If you do choose to have your sensorineural hearing loss treated, it's important to understand that there's no actual cure for the condition. While there are plenty of promising treatments around gene therapy and stem cells, these are still very much in their nascent stages. Most have not yet reached clinical trials, meaning we may be waiting a decade or more before they become widely available.

In the meantime, sensorineural hearing loss is typically addressed through the use of a hearing assistance device. This is most commonly a prescription hearing aid, which may include features such as Bluetooth connectivity and a companion app. In some cases, you might instead choose to have a device surgically implanted. 

In closing, it's up to you how you approach, address, and experience your hearing loss—just know that ultimately, it's nothing to be ashamed of.