London - As Chris Cooper switched on the car ignition to begin his half- hour journey home, a loud, unexplained humming began in his ears. By the time he drew up outside his home near Winchester, he could barely hear the music on his car radio.
“The sound was like a lawnmower, and at first I thought it was coming from outside,” says Chris, 54, a business director.
“I turned up the radio but couldn’t hear the music. I began to panic, but tried to reassure myself that I probably had wax in my ear.”
The next morning Chris was still barely able to hear a thing, and when his wife Gill, 50, spoke to him it sounded muffled.
He saw his GP, who referred him to a specialist for an MRI scan and blood tests “just to rule out anything serious, such as a brain tumour”.
“It was then I began to panic,” the father-of-two recalls. “I thought: ‘Oh God, I’ve got cancer’. It was a long week waiting for results.”
Thankfully, Chris didn’t have cancer, but he was shocked to be told that he had suffered sudden sensorineural hearing loss, or sudden deafness - a condition which affects thousands of Britons each year, and which can occur without warning, affecting one or, as in Chris’s case, both ears.
Chris had never heard of the condition before. “All I wanted to know was when I’d get my hearing back. I assumed I’d just developed some illness that needed treatment.
“But the specialist told me it was unlikely it would ever return. I was devastated. I was fit and had just turned 50, yet out of nowhere I was deaf. It was utterly unbelievable.”
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss happens when tiny hair cells in the tube between your inner ear - the cochlea - and your brain become damaged.
It is movement of these hair cells, triggered by vibrations, that produces electrical signals that travel along the auditory nerve to the brain, allowing us to hear sounds.
The condition can be triggered by various things, says Andrew Camilleri, ear, nose and throat surgeon at the University Hospital of South Manchester and the Alexandra BMI Hospital in Cheshire.
“The blood supply to the ear may be suddenly cut off by a blood clot or thrombosis in the cochlear artery. This can happen randomly, though the overweight, elderly and those with a history of vascular problems are also more at risk. Loud noises, such as explosions, can also cause instant hearing loss.”
Sudden hearing loss can even be triggered by a virus, such as a cold, which can go on to attack the ear, damaging blood vessels and the cochlea. Or a bacterial infection can also trigger it.
“Another possibility is when people have an auto-immune condition, for example ulcerative colitis, where the body attacks itself with its own antibodies - this can damage the ear,” says Mr Camilleri.
“If the condition is caused by a bacterial infection, it’s vital that antibiotics or steroids are given quickly to reduce inflammation and so stop the damage becoming permanent. There is only a small window of opportunity to do this - around 24 hours.”
But in most cases the damage is likely to be permanent, says Henry Sharp, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at East Kent Hospital.
“The ear is a highly complex structure supported by the nerves of the brain, and the cochlea has microscopic electrical anatomy. It’s almost impossible for this to regenerate or be repaired.”
The condition is diagnosed by the Webber test. A vibrating tuning fork is placed on the centre of the patient’s forehead, who is then asked whether the sound is heard in the middle or to one side.
The patient’s interpretation of the sound - or lack of it - enables the specialist to make a diagnosis and establish whether hearing loss is conductive or sensorineural.
“If it is conductive, it means there is something like wax or glue ear blocking hearing and is, therefore, treatable. You then have to get rid of the obstacle,” says Mr Camilleri.
“However, if it is sensorineural, then the cochlea and nerve to the brain have been affected and this is not something that surgery can repair because the area is so complex.”
Around 7,000 people a year suffer sudden sensorineural hearing loss.
Hearing aids may improve the condition, says London-based audiologist Nathan Gluck.
“It can take time, trial and error to find the right one, since hearing aids are not only about amplification but clarity as well.
“But hearing aids will never be able to give you back full hearing,” he says, adding: “That’s why at first sign of hearing loss, you need to get on to it quickly, because if it is caused by a bacterium then steroids or antibiotics may save your hearing.”
Doctors were unable to pinpoint what had caused the catastrophic loss to Chris’s hearing, and he struggled to accept that nothing could be done to reverse it.
“At first I just felt like I was sinking into despair,” he says. ‘” just couldn’t cope with anything.
“My children - Sam, now 18, and Matthew, 14 - would sit with the television on and I’d have to read a newspaper instead. I’m a huge music lover, but now I couldn’t hear music at all.”
Four years on, he’s been fitted with hearing aids and completed a lip-reading course and life has a different type of normality.
“My wife Gill has been a godsend - she kicks me up the backside if I’m feeling sorry for myself,” he says. “She also makes decisions about events we’ve been asked to attend, finding out if the environment would be difficult for me - perhaps because it’s being held in a noisy place.
“Or we discuss and agree that we’ll go knowing I might struggle a bit and she’ll support me a bit more, pre-warning people of my hearing loss so that they understand and know what to expect.
“My sons are great, and happily become my ears - listening to, say, the shop assistant and repeating what’s been said either very loudly, or slowly so I can lip-read.
“But playing in the swimming pool on holiday becomes a game of charades to have a conversation.”
Working as a business director, he mostly communicates by email, though also uses a telephone with built-in amplification.
“My colleagues have got used to speaking up and occasionally having to repeat comments.
“There were some changes to my role, particularly where discussions in a social setting would have been involved.
“I don’t really do that now. Having worked in a sales environment for many years, I’ve become used to reading body language which, combined with lip-reading and anticipation, enables me to cope with most environments.
“In everyday life, call centres are a real bug-bear, especially where the call handler has a strong accent and there is no option for the call to be transferred to a handler with a different accent.
“In the car, hearing aids can be particularly sensitive to background hums such as road noise and air conditioning when you’re trying to talk or listen to the radio, so you get a lot of uninvited sound.”
However the internet allows Chris to research information, book holidays or keep up-to-date with news without the stress of trying to hear what is being said.
Modern medicine is yet to offer any real hope, other than a cochlear transplant - a surgically electronic hearing device, often referred to as a bionic ear - to those who are profoundly deaf in both ears. Patients are unlikely to get full hearing and have to wear a microphone, speech processor and radio transmitter coil.
This has left Chris with no choice but to get used to life without clarity of sound.
“At first I just thought this is so bloody unfair. And I desperately wish I’d have been treated sooner.
“But I tell myself lots of people have far worse disabilities, such as losing limbs or their sight. I used to be a windsurfer instructor, and when I really want some therapy I go sailing. Out there with nature I can enjoy the silence.
“In everyday life I have no other choice but to endure it, so I do the best I can.” -