Personal stories and research reveal how Sudden Hearing Loss (SSHL), which can be temporary or permanent, can lead to changes in daily life
It’s unexpected and it’s not necessarily permanent, but sudden hearing loss can bring serious changes to the lives of those affected.
Nancy Cipriani, 71, of Pueblo, Colorado, suddenly lost her hearing in January.
“Our hearing is one of the most important things in our lives,” she says. “It changes everything, especially your independence. It hits you no matter how healthy you think you are.”
“Sudden sensorineural (inner ear) hearing loss is the sudden loss of hearing all at once or over a few days,” says Dr. Michael Hoa, ear, nose and throat surgeon at the National Institute on Deafness and others. communication disorders, National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
This type of hearing loss, known as SSHL or SSNHL, is also called sudden hearing loss, sudden unexplained hearing loss, single-sided hearing loss, or single-sided hearing loss.
“It changes everything, especially your independence. It hits you no matter how healthy you think you are.”
“Something is wrong with the sensory part of the inner ear or the cochlea, often in only one ear, sometimes in both. It happens but there’s a lot we don’t know about it,” says Hoa. .
Hoa says about five to 27 people per 100,000 members of the population are affected each year, which is about 66,000 people.
Unlike many diseases, there doesn’t seem to be a bias based on gender, race, geography or diet. Although SSHL can attack anyone, people between the ages of 40 and 60 are most commonly affected.
About a third of those with SSHL have their hearing completely or nearly completely restored, a third have their hearing partially restored, and the other third are left with permanent hearing loss.
There are suspected causes including infections, head trauma, stress, autoimmune diseases, drug reactions, neoplasms (tumors), metabolic diseases, blood circulation problems, neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and inner ear disorders.
The best treatment so far is oral steroids and sometimes steroid injections into the inner ear. “It’s less painful than it looks,” says Hoa, adding that steroids can reduce inflammation in the inner ear.
Unlike progressive age-related hearing loss, with SSHL people simply fall asleep one night and wake up deaf in one ear (or sometimes both) the next morning. According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, patients may attribute it to allergies, earwax buildup and blockage, or a sinus infection, delaying medical attention.
Isolation of sudden hearing loss
“It’s scary,” says Lee Davison, 53, of Scotia, New York. He was heading for a family outing in July 2021 when he first had symptoms of SSHL.
“I was alarmed, as it was nothing I had experienced before. I had no idea what it really was or even anything to do with hearing or deafness. “, he says. “I was very dizzy. I thought I had low blood sugar and was maybe a bit dehydrated as I had just come back from the gym.”
According to Davison, the condition was isolating.
“While my family and my sons listened to me and my grief, no one really feels the absolute pain, grief and sadness. It took me months to really get out, other than for work and the grocery store,” Davison says. “But I finally did it. I spoke with loved ones and really understood that it was not a death sentence, but life changed forever.”
Davison says he has occasional tinnitus, which is ringing in his ears, and hyperacusis, which affects his sound perception.
“It’s very painful at certain times and with certain sound frequencies,” he explains.
What to do if you suddenly lose your hearing
Doing research on the internet, the first piece of advice seems to be a visit to the emergency room.
According to Hoa, “It is important to see an ENT (otolaryngologist or otolaryngologist) or primary care physician. If [a patient] can’t get an appointment that day, at least ask for an oral steroid prescription to start taking immediately. There is a time limit after which [steroids] are not effective.” This delay can be up to two weeks, but the sooner the patient starts taking steroids, the better, he says.
Tests to confirm the diagnosis begin with a pure tone audiometry test, then possibly blood work, an MRI, and balance tests.
Hoa also suggests that everyone over 40 get a baseline hearing test when they’re feeling well, so they have a good barometer if their hearing is changing.
Side effects of sudden hearing loss
In addition to hearing loss, Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America, says there are other problems associated with SSHL.
“There’s a comorbidity,” she says, “because you’re cut off from people when you can’t hear them. Or you can hear them, but not understand them. Hearing loss at work can feel threatening to unless you tell them tell them about your loss and ask your colleagues to look at you when they speak, to speak more slowly and clearly, but not to shout.”
Kelley adds that the same is true with friends and family. Background noise can be a problem and sometimes painful. Eating in a restaurant can become unpleasant. She also says it’s important to wear hearing protection, whether it’s a helmet or even earmuffs in the winter.
“I avoid noisy environments if possible and use closed captioning on TV.”
The HLAA has chapters or associations across the United States where people can meet other hearing impaired people who will offer peer support and methods to make life more tolerable. The site also lists suggestions for equipment that will make your life easier.
Another problem with SSHL is the possibility of dizziness or lightheadedness that makes walking difficult. This is when physical therapy might be needed. People may be afraid to drive and, especially if they live alone, reluctant to ask friends and neighbors for help with shopping and getting to medical appointments.
‘One day at a time’
Davison and others found support through a Facebook page for My Hearing Loss Story, created by Carly Sygrove. Members compare notes, discuss current therapies and help convince others they are not alone.
For Cipriani, adjusting to tinnitus has been difficult.
“It’s really hard to concentrate,” she says. “Nothing has helped other than accepting and moving on with my life. I try to keep busy. I volunteer at our local relief shelter, I’m also a foster family for the shelter, and I do exercise four times a week for one hour each class.”
Cipriani says she bought earplugs but masking the sounds didn’t help.
“I try to take it day by day. SSHL isn’t terminal or physically debilitating, so I consider myself lucky in that regard,” she says.
Julie Hickinbotham, 53, of Menasha, Wisconsin also suffers from SSHL.
“I stopped taking potentially ototoxic drugs (ibuprofen, naproxen),” she says, adding that she also bought hearing protection for air travel. “I avoid noisy environments if possible and use closed captioning on TV.”
Herman “Harry” Lee’s SSHL symptoms began in November 2021. The 73-year-old man from Arlington, Massachusetts was tested and completed an evaluation for a cochlear implant.
In the meantime, Lee says he “spends less time on my headphones. I have five different pairs. I haven’t been to a concert, although I avoided them during the pandemic anyway.”
Bad news and good news
Hoa’s bad news is that “single sided deafness is life changing. Nothing we have now is a complete solution, even the implant doesn’t return what [the patient] had before. They have to learn in a new way, even learning to hear with the implant takes time.”
But there is also good news. “There are more options for patients who don’t recover, including a hearing aid that sends sounds to the correct ear,” Hoa says. “Also, the cochlear implant for unilateral deafness has been approved by the FDA, so there should be a restoration of that ear.”
According to Hoa, gene therapy clinical trials, while not currently accepting participants, are also working to see if hearing loss can be corrected.