A nurse took my vital signs and pressed my stomach. There was a deep pain, followed by a terrifying discovery: I couldn’t hear a thing. Neither the nurse asking me questions, nor my husband, nor the medical monitors beeping. Nothing.
The anesthesiologist quickly assessed my condition and told me don’t worry, my hearing would return to normal once the head congestion that is common during pregnancy cleared up. But that was never the case.
Doctors don’t know why people can lose their hearing during pregnancy or childbirth. Hormonal changes or high blood pressure can cause hearing problems, such as blocked ears or background ringing. But actual hearing loss during pregnancy is rare, and hearing loss during childbirth, like me, is so unusual that Frank Lin, professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of his Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, said he had never met before.
My stroke cleared up the next day, but everything was still muted and definitely not back to normal. And as the months passed, things did not improve. There was a loud ringing in my ears; I wouldn’t hear my kids clearly if we were all driving in the same car and they were sitting in the back seat; I didn’t hear a grocery store cashier tell me his line was open; I couldn’t hear a colleague call my name as they approached my desk at work; and I was constantly asking people to repeat themselves in face-to-face conversations.
Finally, about nine months after giving birth, it was too much. “Baby, it’s time to take your hearing loss seriously and go to the doctor,” said my husband, Bernard.
The audiologist immediately diagnosed me with severe hearing loss in both ears. I had lost more than a quarter of the hearing in my left ear and almost 40% in my right ear. And I have particular problems distinguishing the lower tones. It may sound tolerable, but it’s the difference between enjoying conversation and music and hearing confusing sounds.
With grief, shock and deep sadness, I have officially joined the more than 38 million Americans over the age of 12 with hearing loss in both ears.
More than a third of pregnant women develop tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, according to the British Tinnitus Association. The problem can be caused by stress, upper back pain, high blood pressure, headaches, and other common conditions in pregnant women. But for most people, tinnitus goes away once their child is born.
What to do with tinnitus, the chronic ringing in the ears
While my muffled hearing was instantaneous, I first noticed my tinnitus six months after the birth of my new daughter, Quinn, but now realize it had started earlier. It became more pronounced late in the day, after my daughters had gone to bed, and I was settling in for the night. I could hear a low, constant hum, like the sound of a broken air conditioner, which seemed to intensify as our house became quieter. If I was watching TV, I would have to really turn up the volume.
As I searched for an answer to what happened, my doctors thought I might have another condition, otosclerosis or abnormal bone growth in the middle ear, which can occur during pregnancy. probably due to hormonal changes.. It causes mild to severe hearing loss but can be cured with surgery or is helped by hearing aids.
“We are not sure if pregnancy causes otosclerosis, but there seems to be a link with onset or worsening during pregnancy,” said Franki Oliver, researcher at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID). from London. It seems more likely to affect women in their 20s and 30s, she said, “and it seems to run in families, but…we think there may be environmental factors as well.”
Still, my hearing loss didn’t occur during pregnancy, and after a battery of tests, the doctors crossed otosclerosis off the list of possible causes.
Instead, they began to focus on another culprit, sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), sometimes called “sudden deafness,” which is nerve damage to the inner ear. While my doctors said they had not come across any cases of SNHL caused by childbirth, it is not uncommon for SNHL to occur during pregnancy. It’s also permanent, they said.
After even more audiology, CT scans and genetic testing, the doctors finally diagnosed a different problem that they believe caused my hearing loss: I have an abnormally shaped cochlea – the part of the inner ear which converts sounds into nerve signals to the brain. This still doesn’t solve the mystery of why childbirth triggered my hearing loss, but I will soon undergo further genetic testing to help understand the origin of my deformed cochlea, which could help our three daughters if they inherit the same problem.
A year after my daughter was born, I started wearing hearing aids. It was both sobering and delightful to hear everyone and everything again. My tinnitus stops when I wear my hearing aids, although it comes back when I take them out to bed, but not so much to keep me awake. With the help of hearing aids, I was lucky enough to be able to clearly hear my daughter’s first words and her contagious laughter.
The pandemic has been especially difficult for people like me who have hearing problems., because the masks others wear muffle their voices and obstruct their facial expressions and lip movement – key cues that help me and others interpret what they are saying.
Trying to understand my hearing issues has been eye-opening and often left me vulnerable – from wearing my hearing aids for the first time to the anxiety that builds up from attending in-person events and wondering if I will be able to hear everyone clearly and participate in conversations, concerns about how I will be perceived, even share this story.
Fortunately, the conventional belief of what hearing loss looks like is constantly changing, mostly for the better.
Due to the rapid evolution of technology, hearing aids are becoming smaller, more powerful and more adaptable. I think most people I talk to don’t even realize that I wear hearing aids in both ears, which can be adjusted to specifically boost treble and bass, depending on my environment. Devices have different settings for restaurants, concerts, meetings, and phone calls. They can sync with mobile devices and other electronic devices, and they can be controlled with an app.
But there’s a catch to this technological improvement: Prices for a pair of aids can reach $6,000 and aren’t usually covered by insurance.
I am fortunate that my insurance covers a significant portion of this cost. But for many seniors under Medicare, which does not cover them, the cost can be particularly onerous. Partly because of this, only about 28.5% of people in the United States who need hearing aids have them. There is good news, however: Congress authorized over-the-counter hearing aids in 2017, and last fall the Food and Drug Administration began the process of creating a new category of hearing aids approved by the government that Americans will be able to buy without a prescription.
Hearing aids without a prescription or exam? The FDA is taking a big step to make that happen.
I am now 43 years old. In the absence of a medical breakthrough, hearing aids have been an integral part of my life. Without them — when I forget them at home, or need to recharge the batteries quickly before an event — the ringtones, confusing sounds and anxiety return.
With them, I can go to meetings with more confidence. I love music and theatre. I hear the birds singing in my garden. And I can hear my three daughters more clearly, although sometimes I have to ask them to repeat things and enunciate more clearly.
Edda Collins Coleman lives in Orinda, Calif., and is the Managing Director of Cogent Strategies, a government relations and public affairs firm in DC.
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