Monday, March 9, 2009

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I hope not. Barbra Streisand does. So do William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Bono, The Edge, and Pete Townshend.

We suffer from tinnitus, that maddening, elusive condition/damage of the ear that produces continual sound in the absence of external stimuli. The rockers developed it from the loud music/bass amps of their profession. The Star Trek officers from a prop explosion on set in the sixties. Streisand has said that she’s had it since she was seven, and that it’s the cause of her volatile temperament.

I’m most like Babs (minus the temperamental explosions). There was no specific auditory damage for me. I’ve had tinnitus my entire life-—from as young as I can remember. I used to ask my mother “Don’t you hear that?” She thought I was just fooling around, not that I was actually hearing something.

Because my ringing is lifelong it’s not as traumatic as for those with adult onset. I often forget about it, even though it’s a moderate-to-severe case. I’ve had it in both ears, but lately it’s more active in the left.

There was an article about it last month in the New Yorker and it refocused my attention. The author, Jerome Groopman, developed the condition last year, and he writes about his search to find some answers and relief. For tinnitus there is neither.

How to Describe It?

The sound itself is maddening in its very essence. It’s both diaphanous and pointed at the same time. It has no actual pitch-—it’s not is an A, or C, or F—-and yet it modulates all the time, getting higher and lower. It sounds electrical---it “feels” electrical. Sometimes an aggressive fizzing sound is the best way to describe it.

It can get very loud, and yet it doesn’t block out outside sound. I have excellent hearing. When I’m sick it becomes more intense.

Sometimes I’m able to not listen to it, like when I’m in a really engaging conversation. But it is ALWAYS there.

The one saving grace for me is that for some reason, it doesn’t prevent me from falling asleep. On the Tinnitus Sensitivity Scale, that’s what puts you in the catastrophic category: if it keeps you up or wakes you up. That really would be a living hell.

Jerome Groopman went to the University of Buffalo, “which houses one of the major clinical and research centers for the evaluation and study of tinnitus” in his search for answers. The frontiers of tinnitus research are in neurology, which sounds right to me.

There is also the idea that there is quite a spectrum to what we all call tinnitus, that we are not all hearing the same thing. And that there are structural factors—-the shape of the jaw, the drainage of the sinuses—-that play into it.

There has been little scientific research for the condition. “Total funding for tinnitus research in the United States has recently been little more than three million dollars. ‘People don’t realize how complicated tinnitus really is,’ Richard Salvi [of Buffalo University] said. ‘It’s in the same league as epilepsy and many neurological disorders. But so little money is spent on it, so there is almost no scientific database you can build on.’”

That may be changing, and not for a good reason. A large number of our returning troops are on disability for tinnitus and severe hearing loss. “Theresa Schulz, an audiologist who served in the military for twenty-one years, told me that hearing loss accompanying tinnitus is now the No. 1 cause of disability among veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Maybe it will now get some research dollars, for the “audio trauma” onset of the condition. I don’t think that will help we congenital sufferers much.

If I thought about it, I would probably become distraught at this active noise in my head that I cannot control. My coping mechanism has been to disregard it. Mind over matter---if I don’t mind it, it doesn’t matter.

The sound of silence? Never heard it. Not for one single instance.

(top illustration from the New Yorker.)


dorki said...

Sounds like you are managing the tinnitus rather well. Thankfully, the same is true for me. Mine is similar to yours, but my wife's tinnitus is a mixture of hums, klunks, and chirps.

I will check out your article reference. It is small wonder that returning troops have such problems. Mine was, in part, caused by loud experimental scientific and military gear plus auto racing engines (the covered working pits in Daytona are LOUD!!).

We can always hope that something can help.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

I have exactly the same condition with the same variations as you describe, although I can't remember when it started; not in childhood, anyway. Do you find that certain everyday drugs, e.g. aspirin, paracetamol, alcohol, alter its intensity? I can't say it bothers me or interferes with what I want to hear, but I'm conscious of it being always there.

Bedrich Smetana suffered terribly, apparently, to the extent of trying to exorcise it by reproducing it as a very high-pitched or even harmonic 1st violin note in one of his quartet movements. Maybe this was an attempt to rid himself of it by a sort of displacement. I don't know if it worked or not.

M.A.Peel said...

Goodness, I didn't know it was so prevalent! Christopher, that's interesting about Smetana. One of the treatments is a device that matches the sound so as to disguise it. I don't entirely understand it, but it seems like a very homeopathic approach.