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What I Would Tell Myself a Year After Experiencing Sudden Hearing Loss

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It came on suddenly, and the main issue was the dizziness. I was unsteady on my feet and had to work at moving evenly. There was exhaustion and brain fog, yet no fever or head-cold or cough. Strange, I thought. What could be wrong? I never had anything like it before. But since I could still function, drive and do my work, I figured it was some random, passing thing. I would muscle through it.

The second day my left ear started ringing. Bizarre, I thought. I went to urgent care for a blood draw; everything came back normal. I visited my naturopath who suspected anemia and/or thyroid challenges (both of which can cause tinnitus). I started on supplements. I saw my primary care doctor. I started feeling better. Within two weeks my symptoms were virtually gone except for the ringing.

I made an appointment with an otolaryngologist (ENT) but they were short-staffed and I was a new patient, so there was a wait. By the time my appointment date rolled around I felt completely fine. The only holdover from my strange bout of unwellness was the tinnitus in my left ear. How, I asked my ENT, could he help me get rid of it?

He gave me an audiogram, and as we sat discussing the results, I wasn’t at all prepared for what he said: I had hearing loss. “Your nerve has been damaged – likely as a result of a virus. Your brain is generating the ringing, trying to compensate for the hearing it lost. Sometimes steroids can reverse the nerve damage. But it usually only works if you start it within 10 days of the hearing loss. If the steroids don’t work, then I’m afraid the damage is permanent.” It had been more than a month since my episode.

I was stupefied.

My mother had a stroke at age 58, and there’s a drug called TPA that can reverse many effects as long as it’s taken within three hours of the stroke. Thankfully, my mom was able to get the TPS within the allotted time-frame and made a near complete recovery. Taking steroids after sudden hearing loss is similar — the only hope of reversal comes with treating it quickly. Once the window is closed, it’s closed.

I hadn’t known that, of course. And none of the health practitioners I saw before the ENT knew it either. In fairness, I didn’t even realize I had hearing loss; I just thought my ear was ringing.

So my ENT’s words sounded unbelievable to me. Hearing loss? Possibly permanent? I’d never had hearing issues before. I’d just celebrated my 40th birthday two weeks before the dizziness spells kicked up. It seemed bizarre and wrong that I’d suddenly go partially deaf.

But I did; I had sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNL). The steroids did nothing to restore my hearing, which meant the hearing loss and the tinnitus were for keeps. Before I knew it, I was sitting with a sweet, sympathetic audiologist getting fitted for a hearing aid. Tears slipped during the fitting as I struggled to hold them back. It all felt surreal.

This month marks a year since my sudden hearing loss; here’s what I’d say to Last Year Me if I could go back and talk to her.

• The sudden-onset ringing is from hearing loss, not secondary to something else — get your butt into an ENT immediately. If you can’t get in fast enough to one who has been recommended, find another one. Get a babysitter and go sit in a waiting room till someone will see you if it comes to that.

• You can do this. Yeah, you never planned to suddenly go partially deaf in one ear, but many of life’s adventures are unplanned. This may be hard right now, but you can handle it. Give yourself some time to be shocked and grieve till you’re ready to take a deep breath, make the best of it and move on.

• Wearing a hearing aid isn’t that bad. It really isn’t. You put it in right when you wake up, and after that you barely notice it. Most people can’t tell it’s in there either. Subtle, effective, easy to forget about.

• The folks who work in the ENT field are some of the nicest, most supportive people you’ll ever have the privilege of meeting. (This is true in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Greece – all places I’ve worked with ENTs in the past year). Knowing them will enlarge you in ways you wouldn’t expect. Let that be a silver lining.

Spread the word that sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) is a thing – sudden, out-of-the-blue hearing loss can happen to five to 30 in 100,000 people – and has a chance of being reversed with prompt treatment.

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Thinkstock image by Digital Vision.

Originally published: March 16, 2017
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