Sudden Hearing Loss Restored by Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Susie Frye hyperbaric
When Intermountain pediatrician Dennis Odell, MD, and his wife boarded the airplane in Atlanta on their way home to Salt Lake City, everything was normal, including Dr. Odell’s hearing. But at some point during the flight he realized he had lost all of his hearing in his right ear. 

A Diagnosis of Sudden Hearing Loss

"The number of conditions oxygen can help treat is amazing." -Susie Frye 

In his work at the Intermountain Budge Clinic in Logan, and at Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, Dr. Odell relies on his hearing to conduct examinations with a stethoscope in his patients. So it was more than a minor annoyance to realize he was deaf in his right ear. 

“I thought it was an ear infection, so I took antibiotics,” says Dr.  Odell. At the time, he says, “I didn’t have a clue” that the condition might be more serious.

When the antibiotics didn’t help, Dr. Odell went to Jeffrey Keyser, MD, an ENT at the Budge Clinic. Dr. Keyser diagnosed him with idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss (ISSHL), also known as sudden deafness. The standard treatment for ISSHL is a course of oral corticosteroids, which Dr. Odell began immediately. But he also went home and, like many patients, looked up his condition on Google. He found that another treatment had recently been approved for ISSHL — hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Proves Effective 

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber, and is commonly used for treating decompression sickness, and other conditions such as serious infections, radiation injuries, and wounds that resist healing. 

“This is only recently being used for that (sudden deafness) application,” says Dr Odell. ISSHL affects fewer than 20 people per 100,000 each year.

Fortunately, Logan Regional Hospital has three hyperbaric chambers, and Dr. Odell began treatment right away. After his second or third round, he says, he noticed improvement, and by the end of his ten-round course, his hearing was near-normal. Ultimately, his hearing was impaired for only about one week, and he considers himself fortunate to have found optimal treatment.

“I was lucky to catch it early,” he says, noting that ISSHL sometimes goes away without treatment, but other times leaves permanent hearing loss. “Research has shown that your odds of recovery are better with steroids, and your odds of recovery are even better when you add hyperbaric treatments.

How does oxygen help in restoring hearing? 

Susie Frye, Logan Regional’s Hyperbaric Department Safety Director, says that ISSHL can be caused by nerve damage in the ear caused by trauma, decreased blood flow, or viral infection, among other things. 

“The part of the ear affected in this condition requires a high oxygen supply,” she says, “which is why hyperbaric oxygen therapy is so effective. The number of conditions oxygen can help treat is amazing.”

In a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber, the air pressure is increased to two to three times higher than normal atmospheric pressure. This allows the lungs to gather more oxygen than would be possible breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure. The extra oxygen is carried by the blood throughout the body, helping fight bacteria and stimulate growth factors and stem cells, which promote healing.

Using hyperbaric to treat ISSHL is relatively new — Susie says she has treated only two cases — but it holds great promise, in conjunction with steroids. And the sooner the condition is diagnosed, the better.

“If you’re having trouble hearing, or are experiencing dizziness, or ringing in the ear(s) you want to see an audiologist or ENT first, and if ISSHL is diagnosed, you want to receive hyperbaric treatments as soon as possible,” she says. “The sooner we can get oxygen to the area that has been deprived of blood flow/oxygen, the better the chance of success.”