Imagine waking up one morning and discovering that you’ve completely lost your sense of hearing in one ear. That’s what happened to a physician at Dignity Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, a WCA network hospital. Andrew Wang, M.D., an internal medicine physician specializing in hyperbaric medicine, immediately knew what was happening as he’d been treating patients with the same condition: Idiopathic Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (ISSHL).
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, ISSHL affects five to 27 per 100,000 people annually, with about 66,000 new cases per year in the United States. It can occur suddenly and without warning. The official cause is unknown but theories of etiology include viral infections, immune diseases, abnormal tissue growth, trauma or vascular blockages. It is believed that ISSHL is the result of structural damage to the nerve pathways leading from the inner ear to the brain.
“When I woke up not being able to hear in one ear it was very frightening,” Wang said. “I had to listen to everything in a completely different way, especially while driving or walking. I knew hyperbaric oxygen therapy was an excellent treatment for ISSHL so within two days I was lying in the same hyperbaric chamber I’d prescribed for my patients.”
Wang said he typically sees individuals with ISSHL after otolaryngologists try corticosteroids as a first line of treatment without success and refers them for HBOT.
Benefits of HBOT for ISSHL
A working theory of causation for ISSHL is that the blood supply to the inner ear is cut off. By breathing 100 percent pure oxygen in a pressurized hyperbaric chamber, it allows the structures in the ear to survive while the body heals itself.
“HBOT works because it saturates the tissues and structures in the inner ear with a high level of oxygen under pressure,” Wang said. “Earlier hyperbaric treatments improve outcomes.”
For most individuals, treatment involves 10 to 20 sessions in the hyperbaric chamber for 90 minutes each day. Wang’s ISSHL resolved after 3 HBOT sessions.
Interestingly, many ISSHL patients referred to Dignity Saint Francis hyperbaric medicine program are young males in their 30s and 40s with no prior health problems.
“We don’t know why this is happening but we don’t think it’s a geographic issue,” said Wang. “It’s probably occurring in a lot of places but there is a general lack of awareness that HBOT is a viable treatment for this condition.”
Wang said that many otolaryngologists do not know that the American Academy of Otolaryngology lists HBOT as an approved treatment for ISSHL.
“They need to know that we have an amazing treatment with low risk and high benefit,” Wang said. “If HBOT is carried out early enough it can significantly improve the patient’s quality of life. It certainly worked for me.”
As a former scuba diver who is also Board certified by the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society, Dr. Wang has been an advocate and practitioner of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for over 20 years. Many of his patients have non-healing wounds stemming from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, radiation injury from cancer treatment, carbon monoxide poisoning and other conditions.
Any individual with sudden hearing loss should contact their physician without delay and ask about HBOT as a treatment option.
Andrew Wang, M.D. is a specialist in Internal Medicine and Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine. In addition to his private practice, he practices hyperbaric medicine at Dignity Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, CA. We interviewed Dr. Wang for this piece, and he was gracious enough to share his story to help spread awareness of ISSHL and the benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy.