Adventures in Tinnitus (1): Make the noise STOP!

Oh, to have a quiet moment.

Welcome to the world of tinnitus. It’s a condition characterized by a perceived ringing, buzzing or whistling sound in the ears.

Lipreading Mom’s 6-year-old daughter recently shared she can’t hear the teacher at school well because of the sounds inside her ears. Her school audiologist admits there isn’t an objective way to test for tinnitus. The best way to test at all, the audiologist claimed, is to describe the noise to a qualified audiology professional or to someone who lives with the condition.

Well, Lipreading Mom has become an expert,  having personally dealt with tinnitus for 10 years. Some days, the inside of my ears plays a quiet chorus of crickets chirping their tinnitus tune. Then there are moments when my ear concert performs much louder, with ringing hand bells joining in with the crickets. When I make the mistake of attending a rock concert with my husband, sans ear plugs, the tinnitus chorus competes with the sound of squealing guitars and screeching lyrics. And the concert screeches on for days inside my ears. Thank God I’ve only made that mistake once.

This is the first in a series of articles about tinnitus, the sometimes maddening condition that affects up to 50 million people in the U.S and millions worldwide. And that’s the number of sufferers owning up to the condition. Without a proper diagnosis, someone may live with ear noise without the ability to explain why.

 The American Tinnitus Association offers plenty of tips for managing perceived sounds in the ears on its Web site. Among the advice:

  •  Meet with an ears, nose and throat doctor (ENT) or audiologist to discuss your tinnitus.

 Lipreading Mom’s advice: Come armed with your “MES” list: medication, stress, and environment. Document all the medication you currently or previously took, any stress triggers in your life, or environmental stimuli that may have triggered your tinnitus. Environment includes work and family setting, exposure to loud noises, and diet. Two of the biggest diet culprits I’ve found for worsening tinnitus are caffeine (that twice-daily cup of java) or salt since they both contribute to a rise in blood pressure, which aggravates my already ringing ears.

  • Don’t panic. Tinnitus is rarely a sign of something life-threatening or serious. Sure, it seems alarming to be serenaded every moment of the day by constant ear noise. That’s when coping mechanisms can help.

One of Lipreading Mom’s favorite tips for coping with tinnitus: Create your own white noise. Turn a fan on low while trying to fall asleep, or listen to a CD of ocean waves while commuting to and from work. Remember to keep the volume low so that the white noise is calming, not ear piercing and potentially damaging to hearing.

I’ll discuss more about how to cope with tinnitus later. In the meantime, visit an ENT or audiologist if you haven’t done so already. Be sure to bring that important MES list with you: medication, stress, and environment.

Time to get busy on that list, tinnitus sufferers!

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4 thoughts on “Adventures in Tinnitus (1): Make the noise STOP!

  1. Dear LRM: What do you do about depression. I started losing my hearing about 4 years ago and it has gotten worse I can tell. I have HA and I am coping (I teach so sometimes it’s difficult). But I find myself, especially in the mornings/night worrying and I know there’s nothing I can do about it…but I become depressed thinking about losing more hearing. This is the first medical issue I’ve ever had and it has made me feel very vulnerable. Any suggestions? There are no Hearing support groups anywhere near me. I’ve gotten so scared that I’m afraid to have my hear retested. It’s impacting my happiness.

  2. Bernie – Thank you for your words. You have my sympathies and understanding with your situation. Depression is common among people with adult-onset hearing loss. Although my hearing loss was diagnosed 10 years ago, the big “D” has been another health issue I’ve experienced. While there may not be a local hearing loss support group where you live, I encourage you to visit an online hearing loss support group. One I’ve visited is Open Chat Night at http://www.openchatnight.com. Senthil Srinivasan leads the group. Also, visit the Hearing Loss Association of America National Web site (www.hearingloss.org) for tips on coping with hearing loss and depression. Some things that may be helpful in coping with hearing loss-related depression:

    1) Talk to your family doctor and/or audiologist about your depression. You may be referred to a counselor who specializes in coping with hearing loss depression and grief. I found that for many years, I grieved the hearing that I used to have. The counselor pointed me to a grief support group and discussed medical options should I choose them.

    2) Write down your thoughts about hearing loss. I’ve kept journals for years, and this writing allowed me to express my worries, fears and sadness in a tangible way. It was must better for me to write about these feelings than to suppress them.

    3) Pursue the hobbies/interests you enjoy that don’t necessarily require “perfect” hearing. Although phone conversations are difficult for me, I enjoy meeting friends one-on-one for coffee. I also enjoy regular exercise and have found that it curbs some of the depression. Other ideas: Reading, crossword puzzles, bike riding, woodworking.

    4) Realize that you are not alone with hearing loss. The more you accept the loss, the more likely you will be open to others about it. And the move I’ve shared about my hearing loss with others, the more people have opened up to me about their hearing concerns.

    With time, you may discover how your hearing loss can be a way to encourage and connect with others in a similar circumstance. Your experiences and wisdom are and will be important.

    Please keep me posted.

    -LRM

  3. Dear Shanna,

    Does your six year old daughter who has tinnitus also have hearing impairment? Does she wear hearing aids &/or use FM in school?

    In any case, tinnitus is almost always central (in the auditory cortex), not peripheral (in the cochleas): It’s overexcited neurons firing at random when there is a lack of stimulation, from a lack of sound. That is why over 90% of people who have tinnitus, also have a hearing loss of one sort or another.

    The old rule-of-thumb for halting tinnitus was, address the hearing loss first with hearing aids, and a very high percentage of the time the tinnitus will go away. In fact, that is the case for yours truly, and is the reason why I wear my hearing aids 24/7/365, only taking them off when I shower or swim.

    Here is a literature overview of the latest audiologic information on how amplification helps it, with statistical analysis, by Doug Beck, AuD:
    Hearing aid amplification and tinnitus: 2011 overview
    The Hearing Journal: June 2011 – Volume 64 – Issue 6 – pp 12-14

    Interestingly, an improvement in hearing aid technology has sort of “broken” this: Modern hearing aids are now digital, and are much quieter as they don’t have the circuit noise their older analog cousins have: You have to rely on environmental noise to mask it, rather than the quiet “whoosh” in your ears.

    That being said, the masking hearing aid is making a comeback: Several manufacturers, including GN ReSound and Widex, actually generate random white noise to help you mask your tinnitus. In addition, the GN ReSound instruments can deliver “shaped” noise, which is tailored to your tinnitus pitch, and for some is less intrusive, i.e. less noticible and less interfering with speech discrimination.

    In addition, Widex has their ZEN fractal music generator program, which is for difficult-to-address tinnitus cases:

    For many more tinnitus references, please see this picture and scroll through the extensive comments for pertinent external links.

    Dan Schwartz,
    Editor, The Hearing Blog
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