Sudden Hearing Loss Should be Considered a Medical Emergency

Two years ago, in February 2014, I lost over 90% of the hearing in my left ear. The good news is that by taking immediate action, my hearing thankfully recovered. I am writing this post in the hope that my story might help you, or someone you love.

In February 2014 I was diagnosed with sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHS). This is different than conductive hearing loss, which typically results as a result of a cold or allergies (and is when the ear feels “plugged up”). While the “full” sensation in the ear and difficulty hearing are also symptoms of SSHS, there the similarity ends. SSHS can result in permanent hearing loss, and according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communicative Disorders (NIDCD), should be considered a medical emergency.

My Story

My sudden hearing loss started in the early morning on a Tuesday. It alarmed me. My ears felt plugged up and I could not hear well, but I did not know why. I was not sick, and had not been sick for quite some time, although I had been unusually tired for a few days prior to the hearing loss. I also had no allergies. The hearing loss made no sense to me, and it also scared me because my grandmother (now 98) suddenly lost all of the hearing in her right ear when she was in her early 30s. That ear became permanently deaf. I did not want that to happen to me, so I went to an urgent care clinic that morning. They could find nothing wrong with my ears, except perhaps a bit of swelling in the ear drum (both ear drums). I could hear out of my right ear, but it felt plugged, as well. The left one was the one that became the problem.

I did research online that day, and one website said that treatment within three days is critical for sudden hearing loss. So I immediately started calling Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist doctors. None could get me in right away. The nearest appointment was three weeks out. I didn’t want to wait that long! I finally found a doctor that would see me on Thursday (two days after the hearing loss occurred). The hearing loss worsened over those two days, until on the day of the appointment I could only hear 5-10% of normal in my left ear. He did several tests. One test was to ring a tuning fork and place it on the jawbone behind my left ear. I didn’t know what he was doing. I didn’t hear anything when he did that. Then he rang the fork and placed it directly outside of my ear. I was surprised I could hear it, but I could hear high noises and other odd frequencies with that ear. I told him I heard it. Then he did the same with the other ear, and I could hear the tuning fork vibrating on my jawbone behind my right ear. I also heard it when he held it directly outside of my right ear. I said so. Then I remarked that I didn’t hear anything at all when he placed it on the bone behind my left ear. That is when he became very serious. He finished examining both ears, and prescribed prednisone for a 6 day period, and nasal steroids.

I later discovered he performed the Rinne test with the tuning fork. It compares the air conduction of sound vs. bone conduction of sound. In SSHS and normal hearing, air conduction is better. In conductive hearing loss (plugged ears due to a cold or allergies), people can hear better through bone conduction. For example, when you chew food when your ears are plugged due to a cold or allergies, it sounds really loud on the side of your head where your plugged ear is located. In SSHS–at least in my case–I could not hear through bone conduction at all. When I chewed or talked, I heard absolutely nothing in my left ear.

On Saturday, I felt some minor side effects of the prednisone, and knew it was beginning to work. That was also the first day my hearing improved. By the next day it was about 15% of normal. It slowly improved over the following days, until it was near 100% of normal within two weeks, but with residual tinnitus. One final note: Over the following months I occasionally experienced a feeling of “flatness” (or something falling flat in my ear) that dulled the hearing in that ear. At that time I resumed treatment with the nasal steroid (which I had discontinued after my hearing was 100% restored). A week of the spray treatment always solved the problem.

I will be forever grateful to my ENT doctor and his clinic–that I was able to get in and see him right away. I know the immediate treatment saved my hearing.

If you, or someone you love, or someone you know experiences sudden hearing loss, please encourage them to get medical help right away. According to the NIDCD, treatment should begin immediately; the sooner treatment begins, the greater the chance of full hearing recovery. There is a maximum window of 2 to 4 weeks when treatment can still be effective. After four weeks, a patient who is given oral steroid treatment has virtually no chance of benefit (see the “More about SSHS” link below).

During the course of my hearing loss, I came to greatly appreciate the ability to hear–to hear my children’s voices, and music, and just to be able to converse with people. I also have a great empathy now for people who wear hearing aids. It is difficult to distinguish sounds when there are multiple sources of input, and when each ear hears things differently. Just as one example, it was so frustrating for me to be a crowd and to try to follow a conversation near me. It was incredibly difficult. My brain had an extremely hard time filtering and prioritizing and making sense of all of the sounds. It was also extremely hard to explain why this was the case to other people.

I am so thankful to my ENT doctor and to God that my hearing was 100% restored. If you know of someone who is suffering from sudden hearing loss, please encourage them to see an ENT doctor immediately. They will thank you for it!

Additional sources:

More about the Rinne test:

More about SSHS:

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