The Tests of Tinnitus

When I tell someone that I have severe tinnitus, a frequent response I get is clearly intended to commiserate, to make me feel better.

“Oh yeah, I have that too. A little dinging bell that never stops dinging – it drives me crazy.”

A little dinging bell? I would love to have just a little dinging bell, but I don’t say this because I know that the bell is an annoying beast. I remember when I had an occasional mild gong going off in my head, but now I’ve got an ensemble woodwind group, and sometimes there’s a long low rumble of drums and a bit of brass blows its horn for extra effect. I wish the group would play something I’d enjoy, but there is no tune, just sound chaos. Each instrument plays the way it wants to, on its own beat, or just holding a note for a long time.

There’s never a moment when silence reigns in my head. Except when I sleep and dream; the “me” in my dreams is not aware of any tinnitus. But it’s not on mute while I sleep. If I awake during the night, it’s there. It never stops, just waits for me to be awake and aware of it again.

And this is one of the tests of this beast: its ability to keep us aware of it. It wants our awareness of it. We need to find ways to knock it off the top of the noise charts and let the sound we want to hear take over. And since a universal cure may be a long time coming, I finally realized that it’s helpful if we can change our attitude towards tinnitus and learn how to adapt to a life with it.

There are strategies that help minimize our awareness of tinnitus, many of them, and most people who have tinnitus have heard of them all. Biofeedback, music in the background, hearing aids that have a tinnitus setting, yoga, meditation, pressing certain points at the back of your head, and various medications. But if you’re like me, these tactics all seem to work better for other people. Soft background music just doesn’t stand up against my cerebral oboe, clarinet and drums.

I don’t know why my occasional tinnitus, which took the form of a lovely Asian gong, or the click-click of toenail clippers, turned into 24/7 tinnitus of roars and whooshes at various frequencies and loudness. It just came one day and never left. Then last year, I experienced an acoustic trauma which added another devil to my life, reactive tinnitus, that flares up in response to sudden or loud sounds, or even body movements. I can be lying in bed and if I move my leg or neck, if my husband turns over in bed, or if the cat jumps up to play – any of these can spark a reaction of head noise. It also makes all sounds louder, until I’m able to manipulate the reactive tinnitus back to normal, by using other muscle movements.

Recently I had a new mapping on my cochlear implant, and the wider dynamic range has given me more sound which has helped “over-talk” my head sounds.  But my best strategy, which I often do without realizing it, is to focus on something else.  An engaging conversation, a TV show or movie, reading, or creating something delicious to eat. Anything that takes my mind off my mind!

I’ve also learned that I need to be rested and calm. Exercise doesn’t help the tinnitus, but it makes me feel better physically and mentally. I plan to introduce mindfulness meditation into my life, as many people report good results.

Chronic tinnitus is indeed a beast that tests our abilities to be social, to enjoy music and conversation and, for some people, to do our jobs. We need to fight back any way we can. If you have tinnitus, I hope you’ve talked to your hearing care professional.

This is the first of an occasional series of tinnitus articles in the Better Hearing Consumer section of HearingHealthMatters. If you are interested in submitting an article, please contact me at hannangd@gmail.com.

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

5 Comments

  1. Great article as always Gael. As I’m typing (and as I was reading) I continue to have this high pitched “test pattern” type of extended beep going on. Of course not the only sound I experience. And it is difficult to explain the sound(s) (even the “test pattern” isn’t quite accurate to me). And every hearing care professional I’ve talked to – the most I’ve ever gotten was “yeah, well…” or “uh huh”. You know, real empathetic and helpful stuff like that ;)

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks Jerry! I feel sorry for the audiologists and doctors who don’t yet have much to offer us in terms of relief or habituation. Maybe the day is coming soon….?

  2. Great article! I too kind of laugh to myself when people respond to my tinnitus whining with that comment of the dinging bell. I would trade my screaming opera singer or my jet engine any day, haha. I really need to laugh at myself to cope. Strangely, I only have tinnitus in the non-cochlear implant side and know that one hospital in Ontario does the occasional implant to help with severe tinnitus; however, you have to live in that city which I do not. Oh well, perhaps someday I will learn to like opera…..

  3. I have experienced tinnitus for 25 years and it is not easy to sleep at night. A friend recently asked me how my noises were behaving and I asked her which ones, there are four. We both laughed about it. Recently I had the pulsatile tinnitus in both ears with a different pitch for each. It was harmonizing but it certainly was not Handel’s “Messiah” and totally uncomfortable.

    1. Joy, thanks for your comments. Everyone’s experience is both different in many ways and also the same, too. You clearly have a sense of humor, and that helps!

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