Expert Advice: Sudden Hearing Loss

My story is probably like many musicians. Although I have earned good money playing and writing music, there were times when I was younger that I had to work outside of music in order to pay the rent. There were times when I was riding high and making a respectable living doing what I loved. And then there were times when I’ve had to take jobs to fill the gaps between gigs. I worked in noisy factories and machine shops, driving trucks or working construction jobs, all while playing in loud rock bands at night. Some of these day jobs were very noisy and loud environments. And during this time, I rarely used ear protection.

I am also a product of early 1970s hard rock. As a guitar player, I found it essential to crank up my amps to the sweet spot, standing just a few feet from the speakers to manipulate feedback. I usually stood stage right with my left ear facing the drummer with cymbals ringing into said ear for hours at a time. On those rare occasions when I did try using earplugs, I was turned off by the way it made everything sound muffled and flat.

I have also spent my entire life going to concerts and clubs rarely using ear protection. At times, I would have temporary tinnitus and ringing in my ears following a raging night of rock & roll. I tried using various earplugs, but eventually I’d end up going back to old habits. In the following decades there were clues that I was tempting fate and running the risk of permanent ear damage, but I just ignored it and continued to risk my ability to hear.

Then on January 27, 2018, on the morning of a show that was scheduled for that night, I woke up completely deaf in my left ear. I went to urgent care and was mis-diagnosed with swelling in my eustachian tube. I was prescribed Advil, nose spray and other cold medications with the assurance that my hearing would return in a few days.

Well a few days went by and I wasn’t any better. So, I made an appointment with a specialist, which I should have done in the first place. I would soon learn that response time was of the utmost importance. After a hearing test and exam, the specialist told me that I had Sudden Hearing Loss. It sounded like a joke. But no, this is a real thing.

He told me that I should have seen a specialist much sooner. He scheduled three injections of a steroid into my eardrum during the next few weeks. But because I had waited too long to see a specialist, it was possible that the treatment might not work. After three painful injections had failed it was obvious that I had waited too long. Now, two years later, I’m still deaf in my left ear.

I have done some research and have spoken to three different specialists and it seems that Sudden Hearing Loss is a mystery. There doesn’t seem to be any real answer to why it happens and so quickly. Very few people recover from it and the ones that get their hearing back are among the folks who got treatment right away.

Needless to say, as a musician, it’s very difficult to function after a lifetime of being able to hear in stereo. My world is lopsided and one dimensional. I have tried hearing aids, but since my left ear is so damaged, all I hear is distorted sounds that are similar to a broken transistor radio being played underwater.

Recording in my home studio has become a drag, too, since I no longer hear in the stereo field. (Panning is a joke). I have played some gigs since and though I am able to get through it, I am left unsatisfied with what I hear. The beautiful sounds of melody and harmony are now flat and joyless. My depth perception is gone and the sound of an audience with glasses tinkling and voices talking, along with the occasional feedback from a mic is like a chaotic mess within my head.

But all is not lost. I have purchased a nice pair of quality earplugs (Eargasm) and I’ve been trying to get over the emotional loss. I continue to push myself to learn how to hear music in my current state. Music has always been in my life. I can’t bear the thought of living out my life not being able to play music. So, I must learn how to work with the hearing that I have left.

Take it from me, if you plan to continue playing music for the rest of your life, be sure to protect your hearing. This is God-given single-issue equipment. Please don’t be stubborn like I was. I know that, at first, earplugs can take some of the excitement out of playing. But if you work at it and learn to get used to wearing them, you’ll have a better chance of retaining your hearing well into your old age.

Be well and protect that single-issue equipment. There are no replacements.

DALE PETERSON is author of the book, Why in the World Would You Want to Start a Band? As a guitarist, singer and songwriter, he has recorded nine releases with bands, Rhythm Lords® and Trouble No More as well as several solo projects with his songs placed in major motion pictures and television programs. Peterson has over 45 years of recording and touring experience. Contact him at dale@root66recordingco.com.