Vestibular Dysfunction, or, How I Went Half Deaf

This part doesn't work anymoreTwo weeks ago I had a severe inner-ear episode, presumed to be an infection. One moment I was 100% healthy and then, ten minutes later, I was deaf in one ear, with severe vertigo. The word ‘vertigo’ doesn’t quite capture the horrific nausea and vomiting that ensued as my lunch guest drove me to immediate care, nor does it capture the six uncomfortable days that followed.

I’m doing much better now and I thought I’d share the recovery timeline:

Days 1-2: Rolling over in bed requires lifting my head slightly, which induces severe vertigo – it’s usually not worth it. I learned that head movements trigger vomiting, and vomiting triggers head movements – a vicious cycle that can only end badly.

Day 3: I crawled down the stairs and my wife drove me to an ear specialist. This was a terrifying trip. But it was worthwhile because we got prescriptions for prednisone (treats the condition) and Valium (treats the side effects of prednisone, and reduces nausea).

Day 4: I walked to the bathroom all by myself, like a boss, only leaning on the walls twice.

Days 5-6: I briefly got out of bed – intoxication staggering equivalent: three martinis. We got audiologist confirmation that my right ear has zero reception. Any response from my right year (at ~110 db) was actually from the vibrations traveling through my jaw to my left ear!

Day 7: I stayed out of bed all day like a big boy.

Day 8: I returned to work. A sadistic man stuck a syringe through my ear drum and injected prednisone. We visited a cruel physiotherapist who made me walk in a straight line while I turned my head. She then laughed at my drunken wobbling. My balance was terrible.

Day 9: I successfully unicycled – it really is no harder than walking.

Day 10: I still couldn’t turn my head while walking without lurching badly: intoxication staggering equivalent: one martini.

Day 11: I balanced on my tight wire, and could now one-foot idle my unicycle. I love measuring progress. My drunken wobbling when turning my head was downgraded from ‘hilarious’ to ‘mildly amusing’.

It's a good day on the bouldering wallDays 12-14: I attended a sled hockey tournament, went bouldering, and generally feel my balance is now almost back to normal. Except that I wobble excessively when I ride my bike, which seems odd.

So that’s all good, right? I mean, I’m still deaf in one ear, but that might resolve itself, and if not then I get a hearing aid. But my own testing makes it pretty clear that my balance is not really ‘fixed’. My brain has just successfully taught itself that my right ear is not to be trusted, so it is relying strictly on visual and physical cues for balance. If I stand on one foot and close my eyes (try this at home, kids) I fall beyond the recovery point in half a second, maximum.

So, my dreams of becoming a professional closed-eye circus performer are dashed, and I have a renewed appreciation for the importance of the inner ear, and for how miserable it is to be ill. But otherwise, I feel good. The trajectory of the improvement has, oddly, left me positively giddy. Or, that might just be the Valium, in which case you should expect a grumpy rebuttal once it wears off.

Many things about this adventure could have been much worse (the timing was actually ideal) and I am madly grateful to my wife for caring for me during my days of helplessness.

This is my favorite picture because I think it captures the joy that comes from going from “can’t sit up” to “I think I’ll hang like a bat” in one week.

Compiling just some translation units with /arch:AVX leads to dangerous ODR violations -

Also, mad props to my youngest child for editing this.

Update, 2019:

Since the incident in 2016 my body has almost completely adjusted to losing my right ear’s vestibular function. My eyes and other ear have taken over and I rarely notice any impairment. I still wobble occasionally, and my tight-wire skills aren’t quite what they used to be, but I can’t complain. I’ve even managed to learn quite a few new balance skills. Here are videos of a few of them:

About brucedawson

I'm a programmer, working for Google, focusing on optimization and reliability. Nothing's more fun than making code run 10x as fast. Unless it's eliminating large numbers of bugs. I also unicycle. And play (ice) hockey. And sled hockey. And juggle. And worry about whether this blog should have been called randomutf-8. 2010s in review tells more:
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19 Responses to Vestibular Dysfunction, or, How I Went Half Deaf

  1. Muhammad Haggag says:

    Man, that’s rough. I wish you a speedy balance and hearing recovery.

  2. Scott Hess says:

    I had “benign positional vertigo” a few years back (*), and it was absolutely mind-blowing weird. Like I would intend to sit up or whatever, then immediately lay down on the floor because I literally could not figure out which way was up to save my life. A couple times I got down off the couch or bed to the floor by feel because I was terrified of falling off. It passed after a few days, though it sounded like a different thing from what you’re experiencing.

    (*) AFAICT it means “It seems that you get super dizzy for no readily apparent reason.” One idea is that crystals in your semicircular canals come loose and roll around smacking the little hairs, and eventually they settle again.

    • brucedawson says:

      Yeah, BPV/BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, implying that it comes and goes very suddenly) sounds nasty. And it has the downside of being a recurring condition for many people.

      There are physiotherapists who specialize in teaching people with BPV how to rotate their head to move the crystals to a safer location. It sounds like hippie aura nonsense but these are real calcium crystals and they respond to gravity, so it works. Something to try if you ever get a repeat.

  3. Sorry to hear that, and I really hope your hearing comes back. Being deaf on one side myself has made me appreciate how much two ears actually do that one ear can’t.

  4. osiris pedroso says:

    You should try to hang bat like for long periods of time.
    I bet all that blood rushing to your head will give you some new ideas for even more awesome optimizations that you never thought of before.
    Looking forward for more of your articles.

    PS: kudos to your tiny editor. S/he did a great job.

  5. Glad to hear you’re doing much better! It’s cold comfort for some but whenever I think about the various ways in which this universe can kill me, all I need to do is multiply that number by the untold was in which this universe can leave me alive but in utter agony or insane, or both. That’s why you’ve done the right thing by embracing what you love, even so soon after illness. With that, a speedy and full recovery is surely in your future!

  6. akraus1 says:

    Hi Bruce, sorry to read about your bad condition. I hope that you will fully recover soon. You are one of the best bloggers out there. Perhaps a NMR scan could reveal some clues what really went wrong. The best non research NMR scanners have 7 Tesla which would give you the most detailed picture of your inner-ear.

    • brucedawson says:

      I will definitely be getting an MRI (aka NMR) scan done soon, in order to rule out a tumor as the cause. The ear-infection diagnosis is just an educated guess at this point.

  7. John Regehr says:

    So Bruce, you have my sympathies and I hope your recovery continues! But it seems like what you’re really talking about here is the kind of problems that can be caused when compiler optimizations and weak memory models interact. I’m not sure anyone really understands the vestibular interactions here.

    • akraus1 says:

      Why not. We always learn new things every day. Some of us work in the high tech medical software sector. I would not be surprised if there are other readers who have an informatics and medical background.

    • brucedawson says:

      I’m just surprised that I never previously realized (or encountered) the serious consequences of asking the compiler to generate instructions that are only supported on some CPUs, such as AVX. It is eye opening to realize that the obvious CPU capability checks are not guaranteed sufficient. I don’t think it will be my first encounter with this delicate issue.

      It is unfortunate that computer software lacks the self healing properties of the human body. My improvement has indeed continued, as my brain seamlessly shifts to its redundant balance backup systems.

  8. David Crowell says:

    I spent an hour in that condition once, clutching the sides of the bed to keep from falling off.

    I can’t imagine days of it. I think I’d rather debug a web browser than deal with that. 🙂

  9. v533 says:

    A co-worker pointed me to this post. Oddly enough, I’m going through this exact same situation. It’s my week back at work right now, and I’m sitting here trying to code again. It was interesting to read your story and identify with it so closely. Hope you are better! I’m think I feel a bit of improvement but seems like I have a while to go.

    • brucedawson says:

      Good luck with your recovery. I’m continuing to improve, including playing ice hockey two days after this post. Backwards skating was… sketchy. But it worked.

      It’s weird trying to separate out which symptoms are from the condition, which are from the drugs, and which are from lack of sleep due to drugs. But, aside from permanent deafness in one ear (which I am having trouble caring much about) I think I’m going to be fine.

      Do lots of stuff, because that’s the only way your body will learn to adapt, and with luck you’ll be close enough to normal in no time.

  10. munk says:

    As someone told me after my mother died unexpectedly years ago for still-unknown reasons: “The human body is a delicate machine.” Luckily it’s often resilient if you don’t actually die, so I have hope for your full recovery!

    Personally I’ve only experienced minor vertigo, apparently from lack of sleep for months (ultimately caused by having newborns around the house), and that was uncomfortable enough having to catch myself every time I turned a corner. Can’t imagine the difficulty of completely losing one half of your inner ears.

  11. Crystal Krieger says:

    Oh my gosh! So nice to actually find someone who has gone through the same exact thing as I did. They diagnosed me with Viral Labyrinthits and I had severe vertigo and went completely deaf in my right ear. This was 2 years ago for me and I’m still deaf. I’m curious if you still haven’t gotten your hearing back?

    • brucedawson says:

      I’m still deaf in my right ear. I was told that if my hearing didn’t come back within a few days then it would probably never return. I hope your vertigo went away. My vertigo went away, although my balance is still not quite what it used to be.

      Also, good to hear from a fellow member of the 50% hearing club.

  12. Jack Elliott Merlot says:

    You have my sympathies, ear problems can be extremely disorienting and/or painful.

    I did enjoy your unicycle video & subscribed to your YT channel! But that’s also because you are a wicked good tech writer.

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