The Tinnitus Bell Tolls

Gael Hannan
December 13, 2011

Potato (po-TAY-toe, po-TAH-toe). Tinnitus (TINN-uh-tiss, tin-EYE-tis)

People who have tinnitus don’t care how it’s pronounced, unless it’s pronounced dead. As in ‘no longer exists,’  with  all the chirping, sizzling, bonging, ringing, chattering and any of the other 117 identified sounds of tinnitus disappearing, forever and ever, amen. Ah, the dream of every tinnitus sufferer – silence on demand.

I have to be honest. My bouts of tinnitus are sporadic; I don’t have the unrelenting noise onslaught of chronic tinnitus.  In fact, I rather enjoy one of my tinnitus noises – a lovely gong that rings softly and richly, off and on over the course of a few days. Then it just goes away for a couple of months, reappearing sometimes when I’m very tired, sometimes for no reason at all. And when it does return, I’m not particularly bothered by it.

One of my other tinnitus sounds is less welcome. It’s a hard clicking sound, difficult to describe. The best I can come up with is that it sounds like someone trying to cut very thick toenails with rather blunt clippers. Hard, loud clicks, one slowly after the other.

And, for the first time, I’m experiencing tinnitus as the aftermath of a head cold combined with air travel, a lethal mix.  I thought my cold was much better and didn’t think to take a decongestant prior to the flight, or an hour in advance of the landing. As we started our descent from 39,000 feet, the pressure in my ears ascended to the point where I was in severe pain for the last 10 minutes before landing. But the pain was nothing compared to the terror I felt – would my hearing be damaged? It took about 24 hours for my ears to clear properly, and my hearing seems to be unchanged. However, I am aware of a low, soft roar in my head since then, but I’ve had this before and so hope it will just go away some time soon.

According to the Vestibular Disorders Association, 25% of people with chronic tinnitus find it severe enough to seek treatment. The emotional impact of tinnitus ranges from mild irritation (that’s me) to seriously self-destructive thoughts. And, for a friend of mine, grief was part of the emotional cocktail.

When I first met Adam at a training course for speechreading instructors, he had been deafened three years prior, losing the last shred of his hearing to NF2. He told the story of how, one morning a few weeks after becoming deaf, he woke up to the voice of the early morning announcer on the clock radio. He sat bolt upright – his hearing had returned! Although Adam could hear the announcer talking, he couldn’t  make out the words and he reached over to turn up the volume.

The radio was off. It was 3 am. The sound of the ‘announcer’ chattering was tinnitus, and he was still deaf. The reality hit him like a fist.

Every once in a while, the radio announcer would reappear and chatter for a few minutes each night. Adam welcomed these visits because the voice, although incomprehensible, was the only voice he could now hear.

When I heard that story, I cried. I still tear up when I think about how Adam’s tinnitus tricked him into believing that he could hear again, and then cruelly returned him to the reality of his deafness.

But, there’s a happy ending to this story. Over ten years later, Adam is now a cochlear implant user, which I hope has helped to eliminate some of his tinnitus. With more people incurring tinnitus due to poor listening habits, more attention is being paid to the issue. New therapies and treatments are being developed.

Dare we hope that effective treatment for tinnitus is just around the corner?  For information on a new e-Guide for consumers published by the Better Hearing Institute (BHI), click on this week’s Hearing News Watch post in our blogs.

And dare we hope that more people will start to Practice Safe Listening in order to prevent permanent damage and the constant companion of snap-crackle-and-pop in their head?

(Thanks to Richard Reikowski of Hearing Loss Ohio for suggesting this post.)

    1. My cochlear implant seemed to eradicate most of my tinnitus.
      The only sounds I hear from time to time are the sounds I heard as a child in North Bay in the early 1940s. On those cold winter mornings, while struggling with my long underwear over the hot air vent, I would hear the CBC commentators discussing the latest War news on the radio in the next room. In other words, now my tinnitus is men talking downstairs while I’m trying to get some sleep!
      I look forward to your stories, Gael. Thanks very much and Merry Christmas!

  1. It is reassuring to learn that tinnitus can appear in a variety of sounds. I’ve actually awakened at night and reached for the telephone when there was noooo one there. Most nights I think I’m on board ship – with engine noises lulling me to sleep.
    Thanks too, for the decongestant tip. I had a similar experience – five hour flight – with sinusitis – fell asleep and awoke as we were in landing approach and couldn’t hear a thing – “terrified” is the appropriate word. I begged gum and candy from other passengers; changed hearing aid batteries knowing it was senseless. But my hearing did return after several hours –
    Glad that Adam regained hearing access through his cochlear implants. Wonderful, poignant story.
    Thank you for sharing

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