Tinnitus – the subjective sensation of a constant sound without the presence of an external stimulus.
Hi there, folks. I’ve been experiencing tinnitus for years now, and about six years ago, it became more and more of a problem in my daily life. If you want me to describe the sounds I go to bed with and wake up to, I’d tell you that it’s a monotonous peep, much like the famous flat-line sound of a cardiogram, and also a faint rustling that’s not unlike the static sound a radio makes when set between channels. In short: not exactly the kind of music that would get you a record deal, but still preferable to listening to a single Sam Smith ballad. It’s perceived at a volume where it’s relatively easy to ignore for most of the day, but very much present as soon as it gets quiet.
My case is by far not as bad as that of others: though my tinnitus causes frustration and anxiety and sometimes complicates my daily life, it has not drastically decreased the overall quality of my life. If want to get an idea about how little or much suffering it causes me: imagine having wet socks all day for the rest of your life. Annoying, yes, but something you eventually grow used to.
Last summer, however, my frustration over the longest and shittiest private concert ever peaked and I went to see a specialist. Here’s what I learned from the hospital tests and attending a chat group with fellow ear ringers. We’ll start with the bad news and then we’ll end with the good news.
- BAD NEWS: We can’t exactly tell what causes it
It was often thought that the main cause of tinnitus is long exposure to loud noises, such as working with heavy machinery or attending too many concerts. For a long time, the following explanation was given: damage to the cochlea causes a constant signal to be sent to the brain center processing sound, causing a ringing sound that never goes away. This theory has now largely been abandoned. As more research is being conducted, it becomes clear that the cause is most likely not physical (damage to the ear canal), but neurological (distorted brain processing). Another reason for this shift is that there is a very limited connection between hearing loss and tinnitus: people often have one without the other.
When I attended a meeting for tinnitus patients, I heard underlying causes ranging from a depression, brain damage, whiplash, complications after surgery, and even a young student who said: “I just woke up with it one day”.
Mind you, this is not saying that loud noise cannot cause tinnitus, because it absolutely can (go ask the veterans). The point is that there are many possible causes, and they are more often found in the brain than in the ears.
- BAD NEWS: There is no cure right now
It is not difficult to find all kinds of treatments for tinnitus, but a doctor’s advice would be: only try them if you’re willing to risk spending a lot of money on a bitter disappointment. Though there is a lot of promising research being done right now, there’s still no viable cure. The neurologist who spoke to us that day told us that there may very well be one ten or fifteen years from now, but this is of course speculation.
- BAD NEWS: Sensationalism in the media adds to the problem
Tinnitus isn’t interesting for most news outlets unless it’s a dramatic and spectacular issue (read: something people will share and retweet). That’s why you’ll see heart-breaking reports about people committing suicide because they cannot live with their ear ringing and their oversensitiveness to noise.
This media coverage is, however, both wrong and dangerous. It’s wrong because the reality for the vast majority of people with tinnitus is (fortunately) no way near as dramatic. In fact, the experts say that there has rarely if ever been a case where a person was driven to suicide only because of tinnitus. When checked for accuracy, it was almost always a combination of personal problems, tinnitus being at most the drop that spilled the bucket. And this kind of media coverage is dangerous for the following reason:
- BAD NEWS: It’s a vicious cycle of stress and tinnitus, stress and tinnitus…
In short: worrying about tinnitus will make it worse, so good luck not worrying about it! The problem is that, since the human mind works for a large part on building associations, worrying about tinnitus will teach the brain that “Sound = Bad”. As you begin to struggle with ear ringing, it will become your daily focus and this will only increase your perception of it. Remember: your problem being subjective doesn’t make it “unreal” or “whatever you make of it”, but it does mean that it is strongly influenced by your attitude to it.
The good news is that this is also our way out of this trap.
- FINALLY, THE GOOD NEWS: most people learn to live with it (and here’s how)
Now that we’ve swallowed the harsh truths, things can and will get better. Because the good news is that the vast majority of people learn to live with tinnitus. Mind you that the following advices are all easier said than done, but I can tell from experience that they work.
First, let’s take a life lesson from good old Captain Sparrow:
So to recap: tinnitus is subjective (as in: existing in the mind and not in external objects), which means that thinking about it and acting because of it can either make it better or worse. Tinnitus will force you to change your daily routine, and these changes can help you cope.
To my surprise, specialists actually warn against being over-protective. There was a time when I wouldn’t leave the house without my ear plugs, just in case I’d end up in a place where I’d need to raise my voice in order to have a conversation. This is an understandable concern, because the biggest fear that people with tinnitus have is that it’ll get worse in the future (a prospect which is at times absolutely terrifying).
The same goes for the opposite route: not blocking out sound, but always having masking sound around you to drown out the ringing in your ears. You have to understand that for most people, living with tinnitus means declaring an all-out Jihad against silence, and we’ll often find great solace in background noises that others find bothersome. However, avoiding both loud noise and dead silence at all cost can add to the problem because you are basically “training the brain” to regard anything between “loud” and “absolute silence” to be bad. These constant stress responses end up making the tinnitus worse, because you are training yourself to be constantly aware of how much or how little you are hearing. Of course you’ll need to protect your ears when working a power drill while attending a SLAYER concert, but the instinct to cover your ears as soon as conversation goes above whispering volume may be counterproductive.
When tinnitus becomes a problem, you’ll have to go through a period where any possible coping mechanism will at first only seem to make it worse. People will experiment with white noise, cut down on alcohol or caffeine consumption, exercise more (or less), meditate, pick up a creative hobby, even switching jobs or moving to a new house due to either too little or too much background noise, you name it. There are even pillows with build-in speakers that will help you fall asleep. But as we’ve already discussed; putting tinnitus on a pedestal will make it worse.
In the end, the best coping mechanism is doing what seems impossible: you have to accept it.
It’s not just giving up the fight, you have to put down all your defenses and your wishes for a quiet life, and let it all in. Your tinnitus is your life partner now: it’s all yours and it may never go away. This is a terrifying thought at first, I’ve experienced this myself, but again, the good news is that the vast majority of people with tinnitus eventually learn to cope with it. Making peace with your inner noise will ultimately give you the ability to give it a proper place in your life.
When this kind of Zen-like stoicism to the torturous cacophony coming from inside your skull is achieved, you’ll hear year-long sufferers of tinnitus say things like: “first it drove me insane, but now I can even fall asleep listening to it.”