In fact, single-sided deafness can cause many hardships for people, including listening fatigue, the inability to know what direction a sound is coming from, and difficulty in communication.
Every year, about 60,000 people acquire single-sided hearing loss in the United States, according to The Hearing Journal. Globally, that number is difficult to estimate due to the fact that people aren’t being treated for hearing loss in one ear.
“A common thought is that if you have at least one working ear that must be enough, right? The answer is no,” says Anna Biggins, a clinical audiologist at Phonak and contributor for HearingLikeMe.com. “We are meant to listen with both ears for a reason.”
Unilateral hearing loss can be present at birth, or it can develop with age, but it is often true that it is undiagnosed.
There are a variety of reasons for this. One is, that in countries with mandatory newborn hearing screenings the test is often only done in one ear, which creates the possibility that the bad ear can be overlooked.
Another is that many parents won’t notice their child’s hearing loss until they grow and are able to respond to sounds and prompts. If the child is hearing in one ear, they might just seem aloof or seen as not paying attention when they can hear.
Other people may get unilateral hearing loss as a result of injury or illness, such as Meningitis.
Zico Fernandes, a 36-year-old from Bombay, India, says his single-sided hearing loss likely occurred when he was six-months-old and suffered from Meningitis.
“The doctor assumed that when the fever reached my brain it could have damaged a few nerves,” he says.
It wasn’t until he was a toddler when people started to notice.
“I was about two years old and we were the first people in the locality (chawl) to have a landline phone,” he says. “Each time I’d answer the phone in excitement, no one would speak on the other end and I would hang up. My godmother, who called us every day, noticed that every time I answered the phone and she could hear me, but I would hang up. She suggested a visit to the ENT. That’s when we got to know that I was completely deaf in my right ear and it was not an issue with my eardrum but the auditory nerve in my brain.”
Hearing with both ears can help with various aspects of hearing, including:
“I love music!” Fernandes says. “Yet, I cannot use stereo headphones or earphones. That for me is the most depressing about my case. Other than that, I can’t make great conversations with people seated on my right because it’s a struggle to hear them. My mind has trained my body to occupy the extreme right seat or position myself in such a way that I can hear everyone.”
Even though there are clear challenges from only hearing with one ear, most people live their life without technology or assistive devices to help them hear better. Maybe this is because they discovered their hearing loss later in life, or maybe it was because a doctor simply told them there was nothing to be done to help, as in Fernandes’ case.
While it is possible to live a productive life with single-sided hearing loss, there are options to help.
The first thing to do, Biggins says, is to visit an audiologist. Getting your hearing assessed by a hearing professional will give you a clear idea on what level of hearing loss you have, and if there are any related symptoms.
“The hearing level in your worse hearing ear will determine what solution will work best for you,” Biggins says. “If you have usable hearing in the ear with hearing loss, then having a hearing aid fitted might be the best option.”
While you may have been told otherwise, there is, in fact, hearing technology available for people with single-sided hearing loss.
A CROS (Contralateral routing of sound) system is one solution to address unilateral hearing loss. The device consists of a hearing aid on one side and a transmitter on the non-hearing ear.
“How it works is that the sound is picked up from the transmitter side and the sound signals are sent wirelessly across to the hearing aid (receiver), which is fitted to the hearing ear,” Biggins says. “This helps you to hear information coming from your bad ear.”
Read more: Switching on my Phonak CROS
A BiCROS system works in the same way as CROS, except they are designed for people with moderate-to-severe hearing loss in the functional ear. This gives the wearer amplified sound in the working ear, via a typical hearing aid.
The Phonak Roger Focus is another solution, which is especially beneficial for children with unaidable hearing on one side.
The child wears a Roger Focus on their “good ear” and a teacher, and/or student, wears a Roger microphone. This helps kids be able to hear and participate, especially in noisy classroom environments.
Other devices that can be fitted to children and adults with unilateral hearing loss include bone conduction hearing aids and cochlear implants.
These are devices that are surgically implanted into the ear canal, directly stimulating the auditory nerve.
Read more: What are Cochlear implants?
Living a full life with single-sided hearing loss is possible, whether with technology or without. Coping methods and “learning to live with it,” as Fernandes says, is possible.
Still, there is one thing he asks of people who know about his hearing loss.
“At least know which ear is the GOOD one.”