Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL), also known as sudden deafness, occurs as an unexplained, rapid loss of hearing—usually in one ear—either at once or over several days. Anyone who experiences SSNHL should see a doctor, particularly an Otolaryngologist (a physician who specializes in diseases of the ears, nose, throat and neck) immediately – this should be considered a medical emergency.
Sometimes, people with SSNHL put off seeing a doctor because they think their hearing loss is due to allergies, a sinus infection, earwax plugging the ear canal, or other common conditions. However, delaying an SSNHL diagnosis may decrease the effectiveness of treatment.
The vast majority of people with SSNHL lose hearing in only one ear. SSNHL is diagnosed with a hearing evaluation performed by an audiologist. If the hearing evaluation indicates a loss of at least 30 decibels (decibels are a measure of sound) in three consecutive frequencies (frequencies are a measure of pitch), the hearing loss is diagnosed as SSNHL. The hearing evaluation helps the Otolaryngologist determine if the hearing loss is caused by sound not reaching the inner ear (because of an obstruction such as fluid or ear wax) or by a sensorineural deficit (a problem with the internal auditory system).
Many people who experience SSNHL discover the condition when they wake up in the morning. Others first notice it when they try to use the affected ear, perhaps after picking up the phone. Still others notice a loud, alarming “pop” just before their hearing drops. People with sudden deafness often become dizzy, and may experience ringing in their ears.
About half of people with SSNHL will recover some or all of their hearing spontaneously, usually within one to two weeks from onset. Experts estimate that SSNHL strikes one person per 5,000 every year, typically adults in their 40s and 50s. The actual number of new cases of SSNHL each year could be much higher because the condition often goes undiagnosed. Many people recover quickly and never seek medical help.
Only a small number of the people diagnosed with SSNHL have an identifiable cause. The most common causes are:
• Infectious diseases
• Trauma, such as a head injury
• Autoimmune diseases
• Ototoxic medications
• Blood circulation problems
• A tumor on the nerve that connects the auditory system to the brain
• Neurologic diseases and disorders
• Disorders of the inner ear, such as Ménière’s disease.
If you are diagnosed with sudden deafness, your doctor will probably order other tests to try to determine an underlying cause for your SSNHL. These tests may include blood tests, balance tests and imaging studies such as an MRI.
The most common treatment for sudden deafness, especially in cases where the cause is unknown, is corticosteroids. Steroids are used to treat many different disorders and usually work by reducing inflammation, decreasing swelling and helping the body fight illness. Steroids are usually prescribed in pill form. More recently, treatment includes direct injection of steroids through the eardrum into the middle ear (from here the steroids travel into the inner ear). However, for steroids to be most effective they need to be given within 48 hours of the onset of hearing loss. This again stresses the importance of immediate medical care once SSNHL is apparent.
Central Oregon ENT is involved in a Sudden Hearing Loss Research Study as part of CHEER (Creating Healthcare Excellence through Education and Research) in conjunction with Duke University. The purpose of this study is to understand more about the treatment strategies that physicians use in caring for patients with this condition and gather information on what patients do when they experience a sudden hearing loss.
Should you experience any of these symptoms, or feel that you are a candidate, please contact us at Central Oregon ENT, 541-382-3100.