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Health, The Mind

Ringing in your ears? Get some sound advice for tinnitus

Loud speakerThe last time I heard Motörhead play my ears were ringing for two days. Known for their 1980 hit ‘Ace Of Spades’, the three-piece metal band say they are ‘The World’s Loudest Band’ and their concerts have been recorded at 130 decibels – louder than a military jet at 100 feet. I was lucky that the ringing in my ears gradually faded, but for tinnitus sufferers the ringing never stops.

Described as hearing a sound when there is no sound, tinnitus affects people of all ages and walks of life. Statistics say that one in seven people experience tinnitus, and it can be experienced as high-pitched ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling or even a humming sound. Most of us will experience tinnitus from time to time after a loud bang but it becomes a problem when it doesn’t stop. If you hear tinnitus after listening to music or being near noisy machinery, it’s the body’s way of telling you that your ears can’t cope and are being damaged. When tinnitus persists it is notorious for keeping people awake at night and can interfere with work and cause depression.

The root of tinnitus lies in the exquisite sensitivity of the sound-sensitive cells in the inner ear. Buried deep within the skull are fragile sound-detecting hair cells that, if damaged, can trick the brain into ‘hearing’ sounds that aren’t really there*. It’s a bit like microphone feedback and can be frightfully hard to treat.

Too much wax, repeated ear infections, exposure to excessively loud noise and a condition called Meniere’s disease are common causes for tinnitus. Hearing loss that comes with old age can set off tinnitus and for some people hearing aids can rectify the problem. Unfortunately for many people, a cause is never found. Take Trudy as an example. She started hearing a high pitched ringing in both ears when she was 27 weeks pregnant. When her GP couldn’t provide an answer, and a raft of hospital tests and assessments were fruitless, she was forced to do what most people with tinnitus do: live with it.

Easier said than done, of course when a continuous noise makes it difficult to hear, stops you sleeping at night and interferes with every peaceful moment. Trudy found help, however, and learnt that stress and sickness were triggers for her tinnitus. A tinnitus specialist then recommended that she use a White Noise Generator (WNG) – a device that plays a soft static noise. “[The specialist] assured me that things would get better and gave me a WNG to wear in one ear for at least 8 hours a day,” says Trudy. “It took a few months [but] I slowly and gradually got used to my tinnitus and it started to fade into the background.” Like many others, Trudy also found respite at night with a sound therapy device that plays calming noises.

94% of tinnitus sufferers are told that nothing can be done but this isn’t true and help is out there. Stress and anxiety always makes it worse and a doctor should naturally be the first port of call to rule out serious conditions and get basic advice. The American Tinnitus Association have some great resources, including a ‘patient roadmap’ and explanations of the treatments available, such as sound therapy. In the UK, Action on Hearing (formerly Royal National Institute for the Deaf) and the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) offer support and sell good quality sound therapy devices.

Having tinnitus is lonely and because tinnitus isn’t the sort of thing that comes up in conversation, talking about it can help. Trudy has some sound words of wisdom: “I want people to know that it does get better and you get your life back. I want to give people hope.”

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

*There are other rarer reasons for tinnitus to develop not mentioned in this post and can include damage to the brain (e.g. via a stroke) or damage to the auditory nerve, which takes signals from the ear into the brain.

Photo credit: Ian via Flickr CC

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

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