What is Sensorineural Hearing Loss

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Found yourself asking “What is sensorineural hearing loss?” Whether you’ve already been diagnosed with this type of hearing loss or you’re trying to find out if you or someone you know may have it, this post is for you.

There are three main types of hearing loss: sensorineural, conductive, and mixed, which is a combination of the first two. In today’s and next week’s posts we will be introducing to you in detail to these types of hearing loss. We’ll break down what’s actually happening inside your ear when you have a hearing loss, some of the causes, and available treatments.

Before starting to learn about sensorineural hearing loss, it can also help to get a quick overview of what sound is and how hearing works.

Let’s begin!


What is Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

According to the World Health Organization, 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss—or SNHL—is the most common form of hearing loss. This type of hearing loss occurs in the inner ear and it is usually permanent. The level of hearing loss can vary from very little hearing, e.g. not being able to hear normal conversations, to complete deafness, not being able to hear a car horn right in front of you. Hearing loss can affect a person negatively in a variety of ways, including relationships, work, and lifestyle.


What is Actually Happening in the Ear With SNHL?

“Sensorineural” means that this hearing loss has to do with the tens of thousands of super important microscopic hair cells that are located inside the cochlea. These hair cells produce electrical nerve signals that the brain uses to interpret sound. If someone has sensorineural hearing loss, it means that some of these hair cells are missing or damaged, and so some or all sounds don’t get through to the brain. The extent of one’s hearing loss can depend on how many of these hair cells don’t working.


What Causes SNHL?

There are lots of reasons why sensorineural hearing loss occurs. Age-related hearing loss and over-exposure to noise are some of the most common reasons, as well as hereditary reasons—some people are born with it. Over-exposure can be from working over a longer term in a loud environment or listening to music through headphones too loudly. It can also be due to a short but extremely loud noise injury, such as an explosion. Other causes of SNHL can be smoking, illness, or by taking certain medications that are ototoxic—these may be necessary for the person, but can be poisonous to the ear. So it’s always important to be aware of your listening environment, and look after your delicate ears just as you would with any other body part. We would say even more so—you can’t “mend” hair cells like you can broken bones, the damage is permanent and irreversible!


What Does it Sound Like?

Sensorineural hearing loss usually makes it difficult for a person to hear quieter sounds, such as soft voices or leaves rustling. It can make sounds seem quieter, muffled, unclear, or fuzzy. However, SNHL can affect all frequencies of sound or only some of them. It can develop slowly over time, which can make it hard to notice the change. Sensorineural hearing loss can also occur as a sudden hearing loss in a short period of time, and some even experience deafness overnight.



It can sometimes be difficult to detect if you or someone else has SNHL, particularly if it’s a hearing loss of the high frequencies. This is when you’re unable to hear high-pitched sounds, for example a child or woman’s voice. You may be able to tell if you or someone you know has SNHL if they have a hard time understanding conversations in noisy environments, for example at a busy restaurant. Someone with SNHL may also have difficulty hearing on the telephone, or being able to tell which direction some sounds came from. Additionally, some people with SNHL also experience tinnitus, vertigo or dizziness.

Even if there is a slight inclination that there may be hearing loss, it is always best to get your hearing checked by a professional. This will usually be an audiologist who will conduct a hearing test to create an audiogram, which is a chart showing your hearing ability. If you do have hearing loss, the audiologist will then go through your options with you, one of which could be a cochlear implant (CI).


What a Cochlear Implant Can Do:

While there is no actual “cure” for those with partial hearing loss or profound deafness as hair cells cannot be replaced, using a hearing device like hearing aids or a cochlear implant can increase volume and improve quality of sound. Sometimes the hair cells are too damaged or too few to pick up sounds through a hearing aid. Herein lays the benefit of a cochlear implant system.

A cochlear implant can enable the recipient to benefit from improved hearing as it replaces the job of damaged or missing hair cells. Once the CI is turned on, the audio processor picks up nearby sounds and converts them into electrical signals. The signals are then sent to the cochlear implant inside your head. The cochlear implant has an electrode array which is inserted into your cochlea, and uses tiny electrical signals to mimic the hair cells. These electrical signals then travel up the auditory nerve to send sound signals to the brain. The brain then interprets these signals as sound—this is hearing sound with a CI! Of course, rehabilitation is key to making sense of these sounds and to hearing your best with your new device.


Where to Find More Information:

Remember, it is important to get your hearing tested professionally. If you or a loved one is experiencing hearing loss, your local MED-EL Representative can help support you with finding a solution and can put you in touch with a hearing professional. Head here to find out your local MED-EL Representative’s details.

We’re here to support you on every step of your family’s hearing journey. If you have any questions on your journey to cochlear implants for your child, you can connect with our local support teams for answers and guidance: My Child and Cochlear Implants


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