Single-sided deafness (SSD), or being deaf in one ear, isn't exactly the poster-child for disabilities. Rather, it's an overlooked condition that is often misunderstood by the public. There is no way to see SSD, also called profound unilateral hearing loss, so those who suffer from it are often misperceived as "rude" or "unintelligent" when they don't understand or quickly respond to others. That's just one of the many hidden struggles associated with this condition.
Few people are aware how many SSD sufferers are among us. According to hear-it.org, about 60,000 people get SSD in the U.S. every year. These numbers are only estimates because SSD hearing loss can develop over time in many cases. This can be due to trauma or exposure to loud music and also from other less-expected causes such as smoking and stress. Also, many people who are beginning to develop single-sided hearing loss treat it as a minor annoyance and don't quickly seek medical attention.
A person with SSD has no problem hearing with his or her "good ear," but things get complicated quickly. Important aspects of hearing such as sound localization and the ability to selectively listen to one conversation in a noisy room become almost impossible. For many SSD sufferers, it is very difficult to follow conversations, making social interaction exhausting and frustrating, increasing irritability, stress, anxiety, and headaches.
Even less obvious are the safety concerns for people coping with SSD. Without two working ears, the brain has difficulties distinguishing the origin of sounds, hampering a person's ability to determine the location and direction of traffic, for instance. Imagine trying to cross a busy street without the ability to hear where traffic is coming from. Or imagine knowing that a family member is calling your name in the house but having no concept of where they are. The hazards of daily life can sneak up on people with SSD.
All these effects become overwhelming for many people with SSD. When the social stigmas and frustrations become too much, many withdraw from society and the activities they love. They don't reach out for help because they think they should be able to manage. Some try to turn to traditional hearing aids, but these often aren't the solution because they simply amplify sound. If the SSD sufferer's problem is that the inner ear or cochlea isn't functional or if there are significant problems with middle ear function, amplification won't help.
The good news is that there are solutions available. Some devices can transmit sound waves via the bones or teeth ("bone conduction") to bypass problems and reach a functioning inner ear. Several bone-conduction options involve surgical insertion of an implant into the patient's skull with an attached sound processor. An alternative is non-surgical and transmits sound to the inner ear without surgery via imperceptible vibrations in the teeth. This method uses a small, individually fit device placed around the back, upper molars that receives signals from a tiny device placed behind the impaired ear. The system has been shown to restore the perception of bilateral hearing and address consequences of SSD.