Sudden inner ear hearing loss

By Gary Friedman | Aug 22, 2014
Gary Friedman

I am called upon several times a month to evaluate a patient who has awakened in the morning with a sudden loss of hearing, usually in just one ear. Loss of hearing in one ear results in not knowing the direction that sounds are coming from, as well as poorer understanding of speech both from the affected side and from background noise. Contact your provider immediately should you, a family member or friend experience sudden hearing loss.

Sudden hearing loss is considered to be a medical emergency by healthcare professionals. In some cases, the sudden hearing loss can even be the result of a serious medical problem. While there are easily treatable factors that can cause sudden hearing loss, such as ear wax blockage, today’s article is focused on inner ear (sensorineural) sudden loss. The American Academy of Otolaryngology (2012) states that “Prompt recognition and management of sudden sensorineural hearing loss may improve hearing recovery and quality of life”. The prognosis for recovery after sudden, idiopathic sensorineural hearing loss is to some extent, dependent on the severity of the loss. Also, the option of a special method of using steroid medication exists for those who can't tolerate or fail oral therapy (or those diagnosed after the critical two week window).

There are three usual outcomes with sudden inner ear hearing loss: complete recovery, partial recovery and no recovery of hearing. Let’s explore these scenarios:

Complete recovery with sudden inner ear loss. “John Doe” wakes up and his right ear feels plugged up and is making a ringing noise. John telephones his doctor and is referred to an Ear, Nose and Throat physician. After a complete exam at the ENT office, he sees the audiologist for a hearing evaluation which the ENT needs to make a proper diagnosis. The hearing evaluation indicates a severe inner ear hearing loss in the right side ear. The ENT physician begins treatment immediately. Within two weeks, Mr. Doe’s hearing in the right ear returns to normal.

Partial recovery. Mr. Doe waits nearly two weeks before seeing a doctor. The process described in the previous section is similar, except for the delay. As a result, about 50 percent of his hearing is recovered, but with poor hearing in his right ear.

No recovery. Mr. Doe hopes this feeling of hearing loss will subside on its own. Two months later he is checked out by his doctor’s team and goes through the previously described evaluation and treatment. None of his hearing in the right ear is returned to normal.

Two weeks is the general “line in the sand” for getting treatment. When I get a call from a doctor who is referring a patient with a sudden loss, I insist on seeing the patient immediately, even if I have to move another appointment, come in early or stay late. Time wasted can prevent the desired outcome, the restoration of the patient’s hearing.

If you have difficulty hearing and would like more information, please contact Pen Bay Speech & Hearing at 207-230-6380.

Gary Friedman, M.S., F-AAA, is an audiologist at Pen Bay Speech & Hearing with extensive experience in audiometric testing, hearing aid dispensing and videonystagmography (VNG) evaluations.

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