Sudden deafness or sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency

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On September 12, 2005, I went deaf on my left ear within a four-hour period. Bam! It happened to me. It can happen to you. It can happen to anyone, very fast, without warning. When I left the house early in the afternoon, I had no idea that I would return deaf like a post on one ear – at least partially disabled.

As time passed on that fateful day, I noticed that my hearing gradually clouded over. The ear felt stuffy, yet all attempts to “pop” it failed. Gradually the hearing faded away until there was nothing left. My life had changed forever!

By 10:30 p.m. the world had spun out of control and extreme nausea and vomiting landed me in the emergency room. This was actually a good thing because I got the appropriate tests and treatments fast. The whole inner ear and possibly also the hearing nerve had taken a terrible hit. The condition is called sensori-neural hearing loss. It is also referred to as sudden or acute hearing loss. I found out that this is a very complex disorder, a medical emergency that should be referred to a specialist, an ENT doctor – also called otolaryngologist- at once. The window for helping the patient regain at least some hearing is very small, if it is possible at all. Even after all of tests are completed, an exact cause might not be found. Knowing what it is not is often as good as it gets. Such frustration!

The next morning, the ringing – tinnitus- started in the injured ear, never to let up. I call it the temperamental buzzing bee in my bonnet that never sleeps.

On the brighter side, considering the seriousness of the initial total loss, I have regained more hearing than the doctor had expected. I still have the tinnitus and the ear still feels stuffy. Now I face the challenge of fine-tuning the regained hearing. More tests! More conflicting opinions! I have finally accepted that the hearing will never be the same. The hope of getting help from the hearing device industry is waning ever so slowly. Of course, miracles are still possible but unlikely.

Why does this happen?
So, why do sudden hearing loss and deafness happen at all? Of the litany of possible culprits, viruses of all types figure on top of the list. They can unleash infections, inflammation and fluid build-up that ultimately damage the inner ear and possibly the hearing nerve. Blood circulation problems may reduce or cut off the blood supply to the inner ear and cause hearing damage and deafness. Tumors, head trauma, loud noise exposures and autoimmune disease – where the body destroys its own hearing structures – can all lead to sudden hearing loss and deafness.

In my case, we could identify three of the above as possible reasons for the deafness: a viral infection of the inner ear, a very loud noise exposure at a church fundraiser the day before I went deaf and an extreme stress situation on the afternoon that I did go deaf. So, adding insult upon insult to an existing injury did the trick!

What can we do?
Is there anything that we do can in order to steer clear of such dramatic and traumatic ear events? We certainly cannot live in a glass bubble. How can one avoid viruses that seem lurk everywhere? Washing hands frequently, cleaning off the computer keyboard, mouse and telephones can certainly cut down on viral exposures. We can also control the risk of loud noise exposures and head injuries.

Loud noise, the plague of our times, damages and kills ears. Period. It is only a matter of time. Therefore, protect your ears whenever possible. Carry ear plugs and use them. Give your ears a rest after a noisy day at work! Turn down the volume! Tell the wedding singer that louder is definitely not better. Educate children on the dangers of loud noise.

Avoid contact sports. Ear structures are very vulnerable to trauma and so is the fragile bone that encases them. Even protection from helmets has limits, especially if they are not worn according to manufacturer instructions.

Sudden deafness is indeed a most upsetting experience for the patient and for the whole family. Lives change forever. It is OK to panic and to feel let down and alone. There are more of us who understand than you might think! I found great comfort in support groups that offered help and understanding. Ask your doctor or audiologist for a group that suits your needs and condition. Some patients, however, can become so traumatized that they are best referred to specialized psychological or psychiatric care.

Where can you find help?
There are a number of groups and organizations that offer various services to the deaf and hard of hearing. Currently, I am the Vice- President of the Twin Cities’ Chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America ( HLAA TC – formerly SHHH)). We are a support group as well as a learning group. All of our meetings are captioned. We meet at the Courage Center in Golden Valley every 3rd Saturday of the month from 9:30AM. to 12 Noon, September – May. We welcome all people with hearing disabilities and ear problems. Come and join us as a guest, and I am sure that you will decide to become a member. To contact me, send your e-mail to vicepresident@hlaatc.org.

At the beginning of September, I was appointed by the governor as a brand new member to the Minnesota Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing ( MCDHH ). The Commission advocates on behalf of the deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing. It advises the Governor, State agencies and the Legislature on the needs and concerns of those that it represents. To find out more about us, visit our website – which is in the process of being brought up to date – at www.mncdhh.com. If you contact me personally, you can email to me at luxbg@earthlink.net. Subject: Re: MCDHH

Often life tests our coping skills to the max. I have to admit that this whole ear saga has turned my existence upside-down. It taught me patience and fine-tuned my attitude and expectations. Ears and hearing have become my area of special interest, my obsession and passion. What will the future bring? Will the condition gradually improve or worsen? Who knows?! Meanwhile, I keep clinging to the wise words of Winston Churchill who admonished some years ago: Never, never, never give in! To me, giving in would be the ultimate defeat, the ultimate irony.

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