Beethoven once complained: “My ears whistle and buzz all day and night. I can say I am leading a wretched life.”
And Black Eyed Peas singer will.i.am doesn’t know what silence sounds like any more. “There’s always a beep there every day, all day,” he says. “I can’t be quiet as that’s when I notice the ringing in my ears.”
The condition they’re referring to is tinnitus – the perception of constant noise in the ears, from a ringing, whistling, buzzing to a roaring sound.
And it is not just musicians who are hit – it is estimated to affect one in 10 people at any time, with half of us developing it at some point.
For people who have long-term problems, tinnitus can lead to depression and even suicide. Normally it is associated with some damage to hearing, often from exposure to loud noise. Other causes include certain drugs, anaemia, thyroid conditions and tumours. So what can you do about it, especially if your doctor seems unable to help?
RETRAIN YOUR BRAIN
“You simply cannot overestimate how distressing this condition can be,” says ENT consultant John Graham of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London.
“Imagine trying to hold a conversation with a constant loud ringing in the background. That’s what it’s like the whole time.
“When sound hits the eardrum, the microscopic hairs in the inner ear bend backwards and forwards.
“This releases chemicals into the end of the nerve that sends messages to the brain for interpretation. If the hairs are damaged, the impulses don’t get to the brain. But the brain recognises there is something missing and turns up the volume. The more stressed you are, the worse it gets. There isn’t a cure – but there is hope. It’s all about managing the condition.”
He recommends tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), which is akin to cognitive behavioural therapy but employs relaxation techniques as well. Experts suggest that up to 70 percent of patients experience improvement. Andrew Camilleri, consultant ENT surgeon at BMI The Alexandra, Manchester, says: “TRT uses counselling, relaxation techniques and sound therapy to help people cope. We then focus on helping them to ignore the noise.”
There is a theory that we all “hear’ these high-pitched noises, but those with tinnitus focus on it. It is more common in people with hearing loss, as they perceive less background noise to distract them.
“We know that it takes about three months for the brain to become accustomed to anything – new glasses, for instance – and similarly it takes a few months to get used to tinnitus.”
It is hard work, but both Camilleri and Graham have patients who have effectively recovered completely from tinnitus thanks to TRT.
GET A HEARING CHECK
If you have tinnitus, go to your GP, who can refer you to an ENT specialist.
“It’s important to treat the hearing loss,” says senior research fellow Dr Derek Hoare of the tinnitus research group at the Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit. “New hearing aids amplify to higher frequencies so they can mask the tinnitus which operates on these frequencies.”
LISTEN TO CRASHING WAVES
White-noise treatments are especially effective when used alongside TRT.
“We have recently been asked to do a clinical trial on a German iPod-like machine called the Co-ordinated Reset device,” says Hoare.
This plays sounds tuned exactly to the pitch of the tinnitus and is thought to switch off the overactive nerve cells.
CUT OUT TRIGGERS
It was assumed that smoking, caffeine and alcohol affect the condition, but experts suggest that they may not make much difference, although stimulants and certain foods can exacerbate it.
“Be sensible,” says Hoare. “If something makes it worse, avoid it.” – The Mail on Sunday