Single-Sided Deafness: Sudden and Unexplainable

Imagine: The sudden – and total – loss of your hearing in one ear.

  • Your life, going from stereo to mono in one quick instant. No advance warning … perhaps just an explosive pop in your ear.
  • Silence – blackness, really – at night when you roll over and lie on what you quickly come to call your “good ear.”
  • Unable to determine from where in the room – or from what chair at the dining- or conference-room table – a sound is originating.
  • Tinnitus: imagine aluminum foil being crinkled, non-stop and loudly, in your head.
  • Vertigo: several months to several years of trying to function without any balance, concerned that people around your might think you are drunk or stoned because you have to hold on to the wall to make your way down the hallway.

It is referred to by several different names, the most common of which is single-sided deafness, or SSD. A very specific name for an issue that usually remains unexplainable and is far more common and more troublesome than many of us realize. The fact is, approximately 60,000 people in the U.S. experience SSD every year.

It can happen suddenly … in a moment, really. And “pop,” your hearing is gone. It can recover in a few minutes, few hours, few days … or never. It can have a spontaneous recovery rate of up to 60 percent, which leaves 40% never recovering.

And so, your first couple of doctor visits are to the internist and you end up trying nasal sprays and other suggestions that fail.

And then you visit the ear, nose and throat specialist, and take the audiology test that is extremely difficult because you can’t hear the beeps and squeals, but you can feel immense pain and pressure.

And then the ENT specialist tells you that you have single-sided deafness and that you have lost 100% of your hearing in that one ear. In listening to the doctor, you realize how your life is already changing, as your are cupping your good ear with your hand and turning in your seat so you can better hear what the doctor is telling you.

And then you ask how this could happen, and you are told there is no apparent cause, which means no one knows. Some people simply are told that it is a virus that affects people of a certain age.

Says Erika Woodson, Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Hearing Implant Program: “The inner ear is a small organ with a microscopic blood supply in an area that is not amenable to biopsy. Imaging can confirm that the SSD is not due to a tumor, but rarely confirms a cause due to the limits of the MRI technology today.”

So, what’s the cause?

“Much is theoretic, but some knowledge is based on studies where scientists have examined the inner ears of subjects after death,” Dr. Woodson continues. “What we typically see is destruction of the hearing cells of the inner ear (hair cells).”

“We may also see destruction of the supporting cells that surround the hair cells. Another common feature is degradation of the stria vascularis, which are the vessels of the inner ear that filter blood going into the cochlea.”

And, so, those affected by SSD go forward, experiencing an initial (and sometimes) longer period of shame, embarrassment and even anger because certain noisy settings are extremely difficult and because even one-on-one conversations have been compromised.

But they also learn valuable coping measures, which will be discussed in my next posting.

1 Comment

  1. This is frightening, even when it’s temporary. I lost the hearing in one ear during a Ménière’s Disease attack and landed on the footpath, sprawled out in front of fellow office workers. Not a good look, and scary when I couldn’t hear the person who tried to help me up.

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