Can oxygen restore hearing?
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy seemed to show a benefit for those who experience sudden hearing loss, but the extent of the effect remains unclear.
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss – more commonly known as sudden deafness – is a concerning condition where a person wakes up and is suddenly without hearing in one of their ears. They’re otherwise healthy and the condition arises without warning – except that in the days before the loss a person may experience a ringing or rushing sound in their ears.
The major concern with sudden deafness is whether it will be permanent – it’s often missed at the doctor’s office because hearing loss can also be the result of infection and wax buildup, which are more common.
The first-line treatment for sudden deafness is steroids, but the kicker is that for best results they have to be given in the first three days after the hearing loss appears. So if the doctor sends the patient away to rest and come back later, it could be too late.
Patients report difficulties having conversations in noisy places, understanding where noise is coming from, and challenges in working environments, especially things like open-plan offices. So recovering the hearing is important.
A recent paper from the US looked at another possible treatment: hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The air we breathe is usually about 20 per cent oxygen but in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber you breathe in 100 per cent oxygen. The idea is that this puts more oxygen in your blood, which could be useful for hearing.
We don’t fully understand why sudden deafness occurs but one theory is that it relates to small tears or bleeds in the inner ear which disrupt it. Pumping more oxygenated blood into the inner ear could encourage healing and bring back the hearing – or at least that’s the theory.
In reviewing studies on the topic, the researchers found that while hyperbaric oxygen therapy did seem to have some benefit, it wasn’t clear what the optimal treatment strategy was – when it needed to be given and how many hours in an oxygen chamber someone needed to have.
But much like steroids, sooner seemed to be better and a mixture of steroids and oxygen therapy wasn’t a bad thing for this rare, but debilitating hearing disorder.
Last Reviewed: 25/07/2020
© Norman Swan Medical Communications.
For reference: Bayoumy, et al (2019). Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy vs Medical Therapy for Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg doi: 10.1001/jamaoto.2019.0924.