Health: Rock'n'roll legacy of a high-pitched buzz

Tinnitus, a misery for many sufferers, does yield to some forms of treatment. By Heather Welford
Click to follow
"I've just learnt to live with it," says DAVE SIZER OF HIS AFFLICTION. SIZER, a tinnitus information officer for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), describes himself as a "tinnitus experiencer".

Tinnitus - defined as sounds occurring anywhere within the auditory canal that can't be heard by anyone else - is extremely common. The RNID estimates that it affects a billion people worldwide, and one in 10 of the UK population. The noises may be high or low-pitched, ringing, whining, hissing, or roaring.

Yet, last week, hope was raised for millions of sufferers with the unveiling of a new device. New Scientist reported that the American-made Aurex- 3 sits behind the ear and emits vibrations, adjusted to the individual patient, which cancel out the noise heard inside.

"Every so often, something new comes along which looks as though it may be helpful," says Catherene McKinney, an audiological scientist from London's Portland Hospital. "But when the proper clinical trials are held, it turns out not to be much of a breakthrough after all."

The placebo effect of any new therapy or gadget for tinnitus is estimated to be 40 per cent - the benefits fade away after a short time.

Tinnitus can happen out of the blue but, more commonly, something happens to set it off, though the exact cause of the condition is still unclear. "Ear damage can be a trigger," says Catherene McKinney. "Sometimes the ear damage can take place over a long time, which is why rock musicians, and people who work with noisy machinery, are at risk. But even ear syringeing, or emotional upset or depression, can start it off."

In Dave Sizer's case, he was putting up some shelves at home in Nottingham five years ago. "I should have worn ear protection. I had an immediate sensation of dullness. That lasted a few days, and then the tinnitus started.

"I'm more sensitive to loud noise than I used to be. I have to carry ear-plugs with me, and I use them if I go into a noisy bar. I put them in to see Titanic at the cinema - I had to sit in the front row and it would have been ear-splittingly loud for me."

Catherene McKinney says: "Experiments show that 94 per cent of people report tinnitus when put in a totally silent room." Two per cent of people are significantly upset by tinnitus, however, often when there are other distressing events happening in their lives.

Anxiety can make it worse, says Dave Sizer. "Callers to the help line need reassurance that it won't progress, and that it's not the sign of a life-threatening illness."

There is no conventional medication for tinnitus, apart from anti-depressants if the sufferer is thought to need them. Predictably, though, a string of alternative therapies have been tried by someone, somewhere. The tinnitus help line has a fact sheet that lists 28 of them.

Catherene McKinney's work looks beyond an electrical or herbal fix, to study the effects of directive counselling. This involves teaching the sufferer to retrain the brain either to ignore or simply not to hear the noise. It aims to tap into the ability we have in other areas of life, when we switch on to the sounds we want or need to hear, and switch off from the other ones. Mothers may wake with the sound of their baby crying, for instance, and stay asleep during a thunderstorm.

Tinnitus help line: 0345 090210, Monday to Friday, 10am-3pm