Rants & Raves

(Don Chance)

Dealing with Tinnitus, the Ringing in Your Ears

 

ďI wonder how youíre feeling

Thereís ringing in my earsĒ

Peter Frampton

Show Me the Way, 1975

 

ďLater in the evening as you lie awake in bed
With the echoes from the amplifiers ringin' in your headĒ

Bob Seger

Turn the Page, 1973

 

Obviously rock stars know what itís like to have ringing in your ears.  The medical term is tinnitus.  I have it, and Iím glad to share my experience, because frankly, the only time I think of it is when I hear the word tinnitus.  And how often does that happen?

I got mine one morning in June in 1997.  About a year earlier, I had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  Following surgery and radiation, I recovered and have been cancer-free since then.  I am reminded, however, that I still have to worry about it, because every so often my doctor wants to do a thyroid scan.  So far, so good.  Fifteen years and counting. 

When the tinnitus hit me, I was certain it was related to the thyroid cancer.  Turns out there is absolutely no connection with thyroid cancer.  So I was out of excuses.  I immediately headed off to the ear, nose, and throat specialist, who had been the person to surgically remove my thyroid gland.  After getting a hearing test, he gave me the bad news:  tinnitus is associated with hearing loss.  As long as there is no medical reason for the hearing loss, there is nothing that can be done.  Thus, most M.D.ís tell you, ďLearn to live with it.Ē

Well, that really sucks.  Itís like telling someone to get used to the sounds of bees flying around in your head.  There is virtually no one who didnít think he or she would be driven crazy.

Well, I next headed off to cyberspace to determine what was really known about tinnitus.  As it turns out, not much.  But hereís what I understand.  You tend to think tinnitus is an ear problem.  Itís really more of a brain problem.  Your ear is like a microphone.  You can speak into an unconnected microphone and nothing happens.  Just as you could speak to a person with no brain activity and the sound would go in, none of the sound would be processed.  With the microphone, if you add connections, an amplifier, and speakers, a microphone becomes the first link in a chain of connections that turns sound into information.  That too is how your auditory system works.  It requires far more than your ear.  It needs nerve connections and brain receptiveness.  Your brain is really your auditory organ.

Tinnitus seems to be a disconnect somewhere in that chain.  Your nerve transmitters are misfiring, probably because they are confused, oftentimes by hearing loss.  Tinnitus is often but not always associated with high frequency hearing loss.  Apparently your system misfires trying to compensate for this loss. 

Before the tinnitus appeared, I began to notice that loud noises seemed louder, almost intolerable.  I also began to notice that I had difficulty sorting out multiple simultaneous sounds.  I call this the ďcocktail partyĒ effect.  Youíre standing around at a cocktail party.  Youíre trying to converse with someone and near you there are two other people carrying on a conversation.  You canít hear your own conversation because of the other noise.  People with no hearing problems can focus on one sound and ignore the other.  This cocktail party effect is well-known to be common in hearing loss.  So I had some indications of hearing loss, but I did not get it checked out until the tinnitus showed up.  I really couldnít understand why this had happened to me.  Middle age hearing loss is of course common, but most people with middle age hearing loss do not have tinnitus.  My wifeís hearing is far worse than mine and she doesnít hear buzzing in her head.

But it hardly matters.  Thereís not a thing anyone can do about it.  Learn to live with it, they say.  This, of course, is coming from medical personnel who are not personally living with it.

I am sure some will disagree, but I get the impression that tinnitus is not much of a priority in medical science.  Barring suicide, nobody dies from it and amazing percentage of tinnitus sufferers learn to cope with it.  There seems to be very little medical research going on with tinnitus.  Now, that is not the same as saying there is little research going on.  In fact, there is a lot of research going on by psychologists.  These are the people who have to deal with tinnitus patients, suffering from depression.

So I jointed the American Tinnitus Association.  I received a subscription to their magazine, the revenue from which provides grant money for research.  The ATA is a great organization.  I cannot say enough good things about it.  Their quarterly magazine was very informative.  But, Ö.  It gave me no hope. 

A few people find things that help.  You will hear that some try herbal remedies and swear by them.  White noise machines can mask the sound, but you cannot go around all day with something like radio static disturbing the people around you.  Besides, you more or less already have something like radio static in your ears.

But for the most part, getting any improvement with tinnitus seems to be just plain physiological luck.  Some cancer patients go amazingly into remission.  Miracles do happen by donít count on them. 

There is a really good temporary solution:  a shower.  I hear that tinnitus sufferers are apparently the cleanest people on the planet.  They take lots of showers to drown out the noise.

Well, my situation went on for a few years.  Every three months I received my Tinnitus Today magazine, which I read from cover to cover.  After a few years, I realized that the only time I thought about my tinnitus was the day the magazine came in the mail.  It hit me that I had solved the problem.  The tinnitus was still there, but I needed a definitive reminder to even think about it.  Therein lay the solution:  drop my membership to the ATA, which stopped the subscription.  Now, the only time I think about tinnitus is when I hear the word mentioned.  Again, I cannot say enough about the ATA and their magazine.  But I donít need you anymore.

But how did I subconsciously defeat this problem.  After a good bit of reading, I figured something out.  Our brains process noises all day long.   During sleep, our noise processing system goes into low gear.  That doesnít mean we hear nothing.  Hopefully we hear the alarm clock.  Some people are easily woken from noises, and others could sleep through a cyclone.  Oddly enough, tinnitus never kept me from falling asleep.  I would lie there hearing nothing but the ringing in my ears.  Somehow my tinnitus put me to sleep, maybe in the way that white noise can put you to sleep, planting boring and repetitive sound waves into your brain to soothe you.

But the point is that our brains process noises all day.  Consider an air conditioner or heating system that is controlled by a thermostat.  They come on and go off all day long.  How many times do we actually hear them?  Our brains learn that these noises are unimportant and should be ignored.  Of course, if we try to hear them, we will.  Go outside on a warm summer day and listen to the birds chirping.  Itís a beautiful set of sounds that we almost never hear.  Without consciously listening for them, we do not really process those sounds.  Thus, sometimes even nice sounds are ignored.  Our brains know that these sounds are not important to enable us to do what we need to do.  Bird watchers, of course, might beg to differ.  Surely anyone going bird watching will instruct their brains to listen out.  But the rest of the time, we ignore them.  I realized this one morning lying in bed before the sun came up.  When the sun rises over the horizon, the first ray of light often makes the birds start chirping.  I was lying there hearing nothing but tinnitus, and then all of a sudden, I heard birds chirping.  A little ray of light got through the blinds, and I realized the sun was rising.  The birds had woken up.  The stark contrast of no outside sounds one second with the chirping the next made me realize that birds chirp all day long, and yet I had never noticed.

So, then I knew what was happening.  Our brains process millions of sounds all day long.  Those that are important, like someone talking to you, a siren, or a telephone ring, will get noticed.  Our brains learn what is important.  Those that arenít, such as the air conditioner and birds chirping, are filtered out.  The sound gets in there, but our brains ignore it.

That is the key.  When you realize that fact, youíre halfway there.  All the best to you tinnitus sufferers.   I have it but I am not a sufferer.  You will not conquer your tinnitus, but you can do far more than learn to live with it.  You can live your life normally, almost never even thinking about it.  Your brain will do the work for you.

 


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Last updated: December 15, 2012