Elderly man suffering from single sided deafness leaning in to hear his grandaughter

About 60,000 people per year acquire hearing loss in one ear, also known as unilateral hearing loss. Because they can still hear out of the other ear, many of those people choose to ignore the problem and simply tell others to speak on their “good” side. In order to process sound properly, however, your brain expects signals from both ears, and when one is damaged your auditory system misses or misinterprets sounds. It is important to understand how your body uses both ears to perceive sound, and to see a hearing specialist immediately if you experience hearing issues in one ear. Getting treatment can make a world of difference when it comes to your quality of life.

Why Your Brain Needs Both Ears

Hearing is a very complex process, with the ears playing only one part in a very intricate system. The function of the ears is to pick up sound, while your brain and the various nerves that make up the rest of the auditory system are responsible for telling you what that sound is and where it’s coming from.

For people with healthy hearing in both ears, a sound coming from the right side reaches the right ear first, though the left ear also picks up that sound. That same sound coming in from the right side also vibrates at a higher speed in the right ear than it does in the left. This happens in part because your head blocks some of that sound before it reaches the opposite ear. This is called the head-shadow effect. The auditory system processes all of this information about the sounds it receives from both ears. Within a split second, it explains that sound to you.

What Happens When You Have Single-Sided Hearing Loss?

One result of the head-shadow effect is that sounds that have shorter wavelengths and that are higher in frequency get reflected off the head. This affects what reaches the opposite ear. This is where the problem comes in for people with one-sided hearing loss.

Much of our speech is made up of consonant sounds, and these sounds are high-frequency and have shorter wavelengths. These are are exactly the type of sounds that reflect off the head before reaching the other side. Because their auditory systems aren’t getting help from both ears, people with one-sided hearing loss have difficulty receiving and processing these consonant sounds. This is especially the case if there is any background noise causing interference. The result is not understanding what others are saying, even with one “good” ear.

Background noise isn’t just things like radios or loud appliances. Multiple people talking in the same room is a form of background noise, so people who have difficulty hearing out of one ear struggle to keep up with conversations at the dinner table or at parties. Traffic is also a form of background noise, and if the brain can’t properly interpret the direction from which sound is coming, it may not be able to warn you of an oncoming vehicle.

The Importance of Treating Single-Sided Hearing Loss

People who are getting by with only one healthy ear are putting themselves at risk of more than just an inability to participate in conversations. Those who don’t get their hearing loss treated experience difficulties at work, in their relationships, and with their mental health. It isn’t surprising then that untreated hearing loss often leads to stress and anxiety, which can then lead to depression and isolation.

Failing to get tested for a hearing problem on one side might also result in not realizing that there is a problem with the other ear as well. If you get used to how “bad” one side is, the other will always seem great in comparison. Failing to get a proper hearing screening and evaluation can lead to hearing loss that would have otherwise been treatable.

If you are experiencing one-sided hearing loss, make an appointment as soon as possible with a hearing professional for a hearing test. Learn what treatment options are available, and find out whether you are also experiencing an issue in the other ear. The better your hearing, the better your quality of life.