Sudden Sensoneural Hearing Loss: A Rather Personal PSA
Imagine if your whole world changed in 24 hours.
I don’t usually write public service announcements, but this is quite personal and affects a huge part of my life.
Those who know me know that I take my hearing protection very seriously; and not just because of my role as Senior Headphone Editor for this publication. I have several types of hearing protection and always wear it when I work with power tools, go to live music, and commute to work; which often involves flying several times a month. I have a regular schedule for hearing checks every 6 months and I have a cleaning routine that my ENT ordered.
If you’re not doing either, you need to start.
Why am I telling you this?
The other day I woke up partially deaf. I came to the conclusion that I woke up with no hearing left below 1.5 kHz and with a strange ringing sensation in that ear. This created an echo chamber effect for voices and sounds that I could hear with both ears.
What’s worse is that I was out of town and couldn’t see my doctor right away. Every time my ear popped on a plane, I knew it was another nail in the coffin for that ear.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that hearing loss creeps up on people and that the damage happens gradually enough that in many cases people don’t even realize it’s happening. I have also heard that hearing loss starts at the top of the hearing spectrum and that you gradually begin to lose hearing in the rest of the spectrum.
So what confused me was when I went from great hearing one day to severe problems the next day, and that it was the low frequencies that were suddenly gone.
I also wondered if it could be pressure on the back of the eardrum that is preventing it from moving freely; which could explain the effect on low frequencies and the sudden onset of hearing loss.
None of this has been confirmed.
As soon as I got home, we booked the first available appointment with my ENT, who did a hearing test; which confirmed what I suspected in one respect, but the rest of the explanation took me by surprise.
My hearing loss estimate was almost exactly right for the range that I could no longer hear. The reason for this terrible chain of events was different.
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss
I have been diagnosed Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), which affects approximately one out of every 5,000 people aged 40 to 60 annually. It’s less common outside of this age group, but it’s not impossible to see it in children or the very elderly, so it’s worth knowing something about it, no matter your age.
This has nothing to do with fluid buildup, but rather is related to a nerve and can lead to partial or complete deafness literally within a second. It usually only affects one ear at any one time, but cases of both ears falling out at the same time are not uncommon.
The causes of SSHL vary greatly, and for most of us, the exact reason why it happened, or the timing of its occurrence, remains somewhat debatable. It can be caused by viruses, but it can also be caused by a variety of other things, and there are other conditions such as Ménière’s disease that can mimic SSHL and be diagnosed primarily based on symptoms.
The good news is that it is treatable and there is a good chance that at least some recovery is possible with prompt treatment.
The bad news is that the more time that passes between loss and treatment, the less likely it is to recover, and the treatment is both intense and complex. Treatment includes very potent steroids given both orally and as a series of 6 injections (with 3-4 days between each) that are injected through the tympanic membrane into the middle ear and allowed to enter the inner ear where they can act. straight to the nerve.
Where are we?
I’m halfway through my 6 shots and so far all progress has been very small.
I was also advised that even with intensive treatment, it may take months for full recovery or any level of recovery to occur. The last part scares me.
On a positive note, I sometimes hear something below 1.5kHz on the other side, which gives me hope. The downside is that at the moment it doesn’t happen regularly enough for me to know how much of a recovery there really was.
Why am I writing this? This, of course, is not to arouse sympathy, but to warn others to pay attention to this problem. If you have sudden hearing loss for any reason, don’t think it’s a seasonal allergy, a sinus infection, or some other common condition.
The sooner steroid treatment is started, the more hearing you are likely to recover, and each day without treatment reduces both the amount of hearing you recover and the chance you will get it back.
Most of us know we need to protect our hearing with earplugs in noisy environments, but may not think about partial hearing loss as we experience some degree of it every time we have a runny nose or pollen levels above a certain level.
If you have any doubts, go as soon as possible and make sure it’s seasonal allergies or sinusitis. If yes, you can breathe a sigh of relief, and if not, then start treatment much earlier and hope for a maximum recovery.
We will be sure to keep you updated on my progress, but use my experience as a wake-up call. Protect your hearing and remember to take action as soon as you notice that something is really wrong. This can mean the difference between recovery and losing the ability to hear and enjoy music (among other things) for the rest of your life.