Hot summer night, 1980

I am four years old, and frightened. I just woke up, it's pitch black, and something is screaming in my ears really loud. Covering my ears doesn't help. I stumble out of the sweat covered bed, and stumble over to the next room. "Mom, my ears are loud." Mommy gives me half of an aspirin tablet and puts me back to bed. Somehow, after hours of wondering if it will ever stop, if I'm broken, I manage to fall asleep, and eventually the ringing fades away.

That was the worst experience I've had in a lifelong bout with Tinnitus. I've been lucky. Many people who have worse attacks jam objects into their ears, rupturing their eardrums, to try unsuccesfully to stop the sound. Some have been driven to suicide.

Imagine the ringing in your ears you hear after listening to overly loud music for too long, like at a great concert where you're right next to the speakers. Now imagine that much louder. Now imagine that happening for no reason, constantly, and unrelenting.

Tinnitus is a ringing in the ears. It's not directly life threatening, and most cases of it are minor in intensity. Very little research has been done on the subject, despite a few champions such as William Shatner trying to promote awareness of it. The only thing that can currently be done to ease tinnitus is therapy, learning to deal with the constant noise, and trying to adapt to it. Depending on the severity of the case, this can be the challenge of a lifetime.

There are support groups, such as, which are very helpful to emotional recovery from a sudden onset of tinnitus. But resources are few for a syndrome which affects a surprisingly large portion of the population.

Objective tinnitus is a rare form in which other people can hear the noise in addition to the sufferer. The noise, detectable to someone else with a stethoscope, may be caused by blood rushing through the carotid artery, TMJ, the eustachian tubes opening, repetitive muscle contractions, or blood flowing in the jugular vein. Could be benign or the sign or increased pressure inside the head from something nasty growing in there.

Subjective tinnitus is less well understood. Anything from the ear canal to the brain may be involved. Sounds can range from a metallic ringing, buzzing, blowing, clanging, or popping, or nonrhythmic beating. In one survey of 1687 tinntius patients, noise exposure was responsible for only 24% of the cases. No known cause was identified for 43%.

Things besides noise reported to exacerbate or give you tinnitus: food allergies, salicylates, naprosyn, ibuprofen, aspartame, marijuana, alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, high fat intake, high sodium intake, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, aminoglycoside antibiotics, anti-depressants, loop-inhibiting diuretics, quinine in anti-malarials or tonic water, oral contraceptives, chemotherapy, lyme disease, ear wax buildup, high blood cholesterol, mercury amalgam tooth fillings, acoustic neuromas (ear tumors), otosclerosis, and being hit in the head with a cast iron skillet.
Okay, any head trauma. Doesn't have to be a skillet.

Tinnitus comes in several different varieties, as mentioned above. It can happen once, as the variety most people experience after a loud concert: a soft or loud ringing in the ears that goes away anywhere from a few hours to a few days. There is another variety that is similar, but recurring. This variety can be very disruptive to your everyday life. Twice in my life I have been woken up by these "spikes," as I call them.

The third variety I've identified is a constant, unrelenting ringing. This does not go away. Such notables as Pete Townshend and myself have this.

Tinnitus should not be confused with hearing loss. While I do have two varieties of tinnitus, I have no hearing loss. Indeed, my hearing, last time it was rated, is more acute than that of the average person of my age. Tinnitus, rather, should be seen as a sort of feedback originating in the ears.

While it is true that there is no cure for tinnitus, I have found some very effective ways of dealing with it. My first coping method is to avoid silence. For a victim of tinnitus, there is no such thing as silence, anyway. Any background noise (trucks, fans, wind, footsteps), will counteract the "outgoing" sound of the tinnitus because of phase interference. There's such a large amount of noise in American society to begin with, that my tinnitus is barely perceptible during the day. At night, I always run a fan to cover it up.

The second coping method I've developed, I've only tested on one other person; they also found that it works. This is something I do whenever I have a spike, or if my constant tinnitus is particularly loud for some reason. I plug my ears, and listen to the ringing as closely as I can. It is so that nothing exists for me, for those thirty or so seconds, other than the ringing. I make it a part of, nay the only part of, my consciousness. Then, abruptly, I pull my fingers from my ears. At that point, even the distant hum of an air conditioner will cover up the ringing. Try doing this occasionally at a concert, if you find yourself there with no hearing protection.

The most important thing to say about tinnitus is that it should be avoided. I strongly urge everyone to carry a pair of earplugs around with them. For ten dollars you can get a pair that will last your entire life, granted you don't lose them. Wear them at nightclubs, and loud concerts. If you forget them at home, plug up your ears with toilet paper (just make sure to make the pieces big enough to get back out; once, I had to have someone dig into my ear canal with a pin to get some cotton out). If you pass some construction, or deconstruction, cover your ears. True, some people might look at you and think, "What a wimp," but at least you'll be able to hear them griping about losing their hearing, or about the constant ringing in their ears, ten years down the road.

Tin*ni"tus (?), n. [L., fr. tinnire to jingle.] Med.

A ringing, whistling, or other imaginary noise perceived in the ears; -- called also tinnitus aurium.


© Webster 1913.

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