You can tune out the ringing in your ears: Singers Will.i.am and Barbara Streisand suffer from tinnitus
20:55 GMT, 21 April 2012
Beethoven once complained: ‘My ears whistle and buzz all day and night. I can say I am leading a wretched life.’
And Black Eyed Peas singer Will.i.am doesn’t know what silence sounds like any more. ‘There’s always a beep there every day, all day,’ says the coach on TV’s hit reality show The Voice. ‘I can’t be quiet as that’s when I notice the ringing in my ears.’
The condition they’re referring to is tinnitus – the perception of constant noise in the ears, from a ringing, whistling, buzzing to a roaring sound. Other famous sufferers include singer Barbra Streisand, who blames her famous bad temper on the problem. And it is not just musicians who are hit – it is estimated to affect one in ten people at any time, with half of us developing it at some point.
Off key: Beethoven's life was made 'wretched' by the buzzing and whistles
For the 600,000 who have long-term problems, tinnitus can lead to depression and even suicide. Normally it is associated with some damage to hearing, often from exposure to loud noise. Other causes include certain drugs, anaemia, thyroid conditions and tumours. So what can you do about it, especially if your doctor seems unable to help
RETRAIN YOUR BRAIN
‘You simply cannot over-estimate how distressing this condition can be,’ says ENT Consultant Mr John Graham of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London. ‘Imagine trying to hold a conversation with a constant loud ringing in the background. That’s what it’s like the whole time.
‘When sound hits the eardrum, the microscopic hairs in the inner ear bend backwards and forwards. This releases chemicals into the end of the nerve that sends messages to the brain for interpretation. If the hairs are damaged, the impulses don’t get to the brain. But the brain recognises there is something missing and turns up the volume. The more stressed you are, the worse it gets. There isn’t a cure – but there is hope. It’s all about managing the condition.’
He recommends Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), which is akin to cognitive behavioural therapy but employs relaxation techniques as well. It is available on the NHS and experts suggest up to 70 per cent of patients experience improvement. Andrew Camilleri, consultant ENT surgeon, at BMI The Alexandra, Manchester, says: ‘TRT uses counselling, relaxation techniques and sound therapy to help people cope. We then focus on helping them to ignore the noise.’
No peace: Will.i.am hears constant beeps, and Barbra Streisand also suffers
There is a theory that we all ‘hear’ these high-pitched noises but those with tinnitus focus on it. It is more common in people with hearing loss, as they perceive less background noise to distract them.
‘We know that it takes about three months for the brain to become accustomed to anything – new glasses, for instance – and similarly it takes a few months to get used to tinnitus.’ It is hard work but both Camilleri and Graham doctors have patients who have effectively recovered completely from tinnitus thanks to TRT.
GET YOUR HEARING CHECKED
If you have tinnitus, go to your GP, who can refer you to an ENT specialist. ‘It’s important to treat the hearing loss,’ says senior research fellow Dr Derek Hoare, who works in the tinnitus research group at the NIHR Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit. ‘New hearing aids amplify to higher frequencies so they can help mask the tinnitus which operates on these frequencies.’
LISTEN TO CRASHING WAVES
White noise machines provide constant background noise in the form of soothing sounds such as rain or crashing waves, and discreet masking devices, which can be worn in the ear, are also available on the NHS. White-noise treatments are especially effective when used alongside TRT. ‘We have recently been asked to do a clinical trial on a German iPod-like machine called the Co-ordinated Reset [CR] device,’ says Dr Hoare. This plays sounds tuned exactly to the pitch of the tinnitus and is thought to switch off the overactive nerve cells. It is available at The Tinnitus Clinic in London’s Harley Street.
CUT OUT THE TRIGGERS
It was assumed that smoking, caffeine and alcohol impact on the condition, but experts suggest they may not make much difference. Stimulants or certain foods can, however, exacerbate it. ‘Be sensible,’ says Dr Hoare. ‘If something makes it worse, avoid it.’
NO DRUG THERAPIES…YET
‘Valium used to be prescribed,’ says Graham, ‘but it isn’t good for you. Anti-epileptic drugs can make the noise quieter, but at doses that make patients feel sick.’ The best option by far is trying to learn to live with it.