One year ago I’d never heard of Tinnitus Awareness Week. This year, I find myself writing an article to promote it.
Tinnitus is crying out for awareness. It is a cruel condition that robs sufferers of the ability to hear silence and can cause great distress, yet as a society we are mostly silent about it. At least one in ten of us have it permanently, but a general confusion over its causes and symptoms encourages the nine who don’t to downplay its importance.
The misconceptions start with the name. “Tinnitus” refers to the Latin verb for “ringing”, but it can equally be experienced as a hissing, humming, whooshing or buzzing. I once met an elderly man who told me he had a waterfall running through his right ear. The sound can manifest itself in either ear, or both; it can vary in pitch and volume, or remain stable.
The science surrounding this subject is still hazy. Tinnitus has been associated with age-related hearing loss and with exposure to loud sounds, but it can also been triggered by ear infections, head injuries, malaria, and all manner of other causes. Sometimes it starts for no apparent reason, and never leaves. The mechanics of the condition aren’t yet fully understood, so a cure is still some way off. And while it’s rarely a symptom of a more dangerous underlying condition, tinnitus can be maddening, forcing sufferers to flee loud spaces for fear of aggravating it and to avoid quiet rooms for fear of hearing it. People lose weight, lose sleep, lose their jobs because of it.
Over the past year I became aware that I had tinnitus. Since the initial shock onset, my experience of the condition has fluctuated. I hear, in the middle of my head, a harmony of impossibly high frequencies that remain more or less stable – though a new, lower pitch broke out over the Christmas break. In my more accepting moments, I can sit back, block my ears and appreciate the beauty of this otherworldly chord. But at times of stress, the soft hiss swells to a pronounced whistling, and I’m confronted with the gutting realisation that the sound will be with me tomorrow, next Christmas, on my wedding day, throughout my retirement.
The point is that tinnitus is, to an extent, only as bad as you think it is. As an entirely subjective phenomenon, it is easy prey for anxiety. The sounds are essentially hallucinations, and as doctors are unable to make an objective assessment of what you should be hearing and how loudly, a worried brain will convince itself that the noise is greater than it actually is. This triggers further anxiety, creating a feedback loop. The old medical reassurance that “it’s all in your head” is little comfort here: tinnitus is literally all in your head, and that’s the very problem.
Acknowledging this psychological aspect is the starting point for treatment, and procedures such as tailored cognitive behavioural therapy courses can help the afflicted come to terms with their condition. But sufferers often complain of being given short shrift by their GPs; mine effectively told me to grin and bear it.
This sort of casual disregard for tinnitus turns what is already a painfully intimate condition into an isolating one, as people are discouraged from speaking about the sound in their head for fear of not being heard. Coupled with the sheer prevalence of the problem, this creates an urgent need for events such as Tinnitus Awareness Week, which hosts information and discussion sessions across the nation. If those with tinnitus can find the confidence to describe their experiences, eventually the government and the media will cotton on.
I’m convinced that my tinnitus, like many others’, was brought on by loud music, and when I go out I now wear earplugs. Sometimes I take them out briefly during the night, and marvel at the damage to which those around me are willingly subjecting their ears. I notice that the bouncers and bartenders have all plugged up, and wonder why ravers aren’t being invited to do the same.
Everyone who’s been to a gig or club has experienced the sort of fleeting tinnitus that lasts into the next day; for many it’s a badge of honour, to be pinned up next to the hangover and aching jaw. They will continue to regard tinnitus as the trivial side-effect of a great night out, until a more assertive public debate convinces them to take preventative measures – or until, one day, the ringing in their ears decides to stay.
Tinnitus Awareness Week runs from February 2 to 8 in venues across the UK. It is organised by the British Tinnitus Association. For more information, consult their website.