Can Hearing Loss Be Reversed? Hope on the Horizon

By Carly Sygrove

Hearing loss affects approximately 15 percent of American adults, and this number is expected to rise in the coming years.

For some, it’s temporary condition, either disappearing over time or resolved with interventions. For many, however, the loss is permanent and can make daily life more challenging. Hearing loss can cause issues with socializing and one’s relationships. Links to depression have also been reported, as well as social withdrawal and cognitive decline.

For these reasons, the question, “Can hearing loss be reversed?” is an urgent one. HearingTracker takes a closer look at this topic, sharing which kinds of loss can be restored, which can’t – and what kinds of innovative cures are currently being researched.

Which types of hearing loss can be reversed?

Some types of hearing loss may get better on their own, or recovery may be possible with surgical intervention or medication. These include:

Most forms of conductive hearing loss This kind of loss is caused by problems with either the middle or the outer ear. Often a blockage hinders the sound from reaching the inner ear organ of hearing, also known as the cochlea. This typically causes a reduction in the loudness of sound, making speech sounds muffled.

Conductive hearing loss can usually be reversed by treating the cause of the blockage.

  • If earwax build-up is the issue, a hearing healthcare specialist can safely remove the wax causing the blockage or give you eardrops to use at home to help break it down.
  • If cholesteatoma—a small lump or skin in the middle ear space—is to blame, these growths can be surgically removed by an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT).
  • If a foreign body is stuck in the outer ear, a healthcare professional can remove the object and typically restore hearing.
  • If fluid in your middle ear, often caused by congestion due to colds, allergies, or ear infections, is causing hearing loss, the condition should resolve. The passage of time may solve the problem, and over-the-counter medications may help ease recovery. In the case of an ear infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.

Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss – also known as SSNHL – is also potentially reversible. SSNHL involves a sudden, rapid loss of hearing which can affect one or both ears. Symptoms include a feeling of fullness in the ear, muffled hearing, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and/or dizziness or vertigo.

This type of hearing loss is commonly treated with medications known as corticosteroids which may be taken orally, administered intravenously, or injected directly into the middle ear. It’s important to see an ENT specialist ASAP if you suspect you have SSNHL, as speedy treatment increases the odds of preserving your hearing.

Which types of hearing loss are currently irreversible?

Unfortunately, most types of hearing loss are permanent—or at least at the present time. These include the following:

  • All forms of sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), except SSNHL. This loss involves damage to the inner ear or the auditory nerve, which are complex structures and difficult to treat. Moreover, once the hearing hair cells in the inner ear are damaged, they cannot grow back. Common causes for SNHL include aging (presbycusis); a history of exposure to loud noise; and illnesses like measles, meningitis, and mumps. Genetics can also play a role.
  • Most types of mixed hearing loss are permanent. These involve a combination of both SNHL and conductive hearing loss. Even if the conductive part can be reversed, the sensorineural component will usually remain.
  • A few kinds of conductive hearing loss tend to be permanent. These are ones that involve anatomical differences (like a narrowing of or bony growths in the ear canal), which are complicated to treat.

Fast forward: Will all hearing loss be reversible someday?

Although most types of hearing loss are currently irreversible, they can usually be managed with hearing aids and implants, depending on the type and severity of the loss.

But the search is on for ways to cure hearing loss. Scientists are busy developing cutting-edge pharmaceuticals and gene therapy, and some potential treatments are already in clinical trials.

Reversing Hearing Loss Science

Scientists are actively working on finding a gene therapy cure for hearing loss.

Here, a few of the innovations in progress:

  • FX-322 medication - There’s a lot of buzz around this particular treatment. Dr. Carl LeBel, the Chief Development Officer at biotechnology company Frequency Therapeutics, spoke to HearingTracker in a podcast about the development of a novel hearing-loss treatment drug, FX-322. “We're taking a regenerative medicine approach. We're acting on cells that are already in the cochlea,” explained LeBel.

FX-322 is administered via injection into the eardrum. It is designed to stimulate inactive stem cells, so that they “wake up” and start to generate new hearing hair cells, thus reversing hearing loss.

“Our work in the labs suggests that the end result is an improvement in hearing,” said LeBel. The company announced in Otology & Neurotology that its first study showed the drug “enhances speech recognition performance in multiple subjects with stable chronic hearing loss.” However, the next phase of clinical trials did not show an impact on hearing levels. The company’s product is still considered promising, and further studies may be conducted in pursuit of FDA approval.

  • REGAIN - The REGAIN project focuses on developing an injectable drug that aims to regenerate inner-ear sensory hair cells that are lost with age. This treatment for mild to moderate SSNHL showed positive results in its testing, with further studies needed.
  • Hearing Restoration Project - The Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) is funding research on hair-cell function and possible regeneration. Researchers are investigating the potential of having stem cells develop and function as hearing hair cells. So far, there have been encouraging results.

If you’re interested in watching new treatment options unfold, the Hearing Loss Treatment report is a helpful resource. Until a cure is found, however, take care of your hearing and always consult with a specialist if you notice any changes.