Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow – An Account of Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL)



 

Just over a year ago I got back from a night out with friends, sat down on the sofa and lost the hearing in my left ear. It really was as unceremonious as that.

My reaction at the time was very low key and measured. I went to bed. I hoped that my hearing would return by morning and had a little listen to the increasingly high pitched, whooshing and roaring in my ear, that was (as it turned out) to be the new sound of silence. A sudden and significant hearing loss is a medical emergency. It’s important to get emergency treatment as soon as possible and certainly within four days of onset, which is the period in which treatment needs to be started to have the best chance to work. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this and I woke up on a Saturday so was unsure what to do. At the time, I thought that A&E was for people with proper life-threatening emergencies, and my GP surgery was closed so I called 111 and went to see an out-of-hours nurse who confirmed what I knew - that my ear wasn’t blocked and told me to see a doctor in the coming week.

Unfortunately, GP’s aren’t always aware of what to do when a patient presents with a sudden hearing drop, and it took a long time for me to convince a doctor that I really was thoroughly deaf in my left ear and to get a hearing test scheduled. By this point I’d been doing a bit of googling and had diagnosed myself with Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL) - it can be a dangerous pastime googling health issues, though occasionally it is possible to get it right. I went to a different GP, armed with a damning audiogram and she immediately rang the emergency ENT department and got me started on a two-week course of high dose steroids, which is the standard and only treatment offered in the UK for SSHL. Unfortunately, for me, this treatment was started almost four weeks after I lost my hearing and although I did eventually recover a small amount, the majority had gone for good.

Sudden hearing loss is a lot less common than a gradual deterioration. It usually affects one ear only, though sudden bilateral loss can also occur. Once the deafness has occurred, alongside treatment the next step is to determine the reasons behind the loss which can be caused by a range of issues including Meniere’s disease, autoimmune conditions, acoustic neuroma’s - which are benign brain tumours growing on the hearing nerve – or a virus that causes catastrophic swelling in the inner ear. For me, as my MRI revealed no tumours and Meniere’s was ruled out, my loss would appear to have been caused by a virus, though I still have some rheumatology tests ongoing to ensure that there are no underlying auto-immune conditions present.

The next step was to face the reality that my hearing wasn’t coming back. This was the lowest point for me by far. The process of regaining just a small fraction of my hearing brought with it hope, but also a terrible distortion which literally felt as though loose bolts were clashing and vibrating inside my head. Just the sound of people talking at a normal volume as they passed me on the street seemed excruciating and my left ear would interpret sound as anything from a mild buzzing to a huge reverberation while my good ear tried resolutely to inform me of what was going on.

Being fitted with a hearing aid has helped a lot. I wear an NHS-supplied Oticon Synergy Spirit and do feel that it has made a difference. By the time I was fitted the distortion had thankfully begun to settle and although the clarity of the aid could, I’m sure be better, I noticed a big difference both in my ability to understand what people were saying and in improving the increasing sense of social isolation that I hadn’t fully acknowledged had begun to settle in. I have a love/hate relationship with it of course. For a while, just having to put the aid in, gave me a sense of resentment, and as time has gone on my good ear constantly reminds me of what I have lost while my deaf ear continually prompts me to be glad of what hearing remains. The hearing aid is a useful step in the process of retraining my brain to work with such a sudden deafness. It creates a sense of balance and improves what I understand in the world, however, it also provides me with a sound that is a little distorted from that of my good ear and parsing those two separate interpretations of the same sound continues to take time to get used to.


 

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