The sound of
I grew up in a noisy household. As the oldest of eight, you can just imagine how noisy it might get. I can deal with it, tune it out even, but I do not thrive on noise. It’s the quiet corners that I prefer. So … it was quite disconcerting when, about eight years ago, I started hearing a strange sound in my head.
I remember the exact moment I first heard it. I had been working from home for a few years, not because of COVID, but because I had started my Catching Health blog and was also doing some freelance writing. The house was very quiet, which I was used to and appreciated, but suddenly there it was — a low hissing sound.
That must be what silence sounds like, I thought. I actually found it rather amusing and went on with my day. That night as I started to drift off to sleep, there it was again. A low hiss that seemed to reside in the middle of my brain. I put my hands over my ears and nothing changed. Head under my pillow, still nothing. I finally went to sleep and when I woke up the next morning, it was still there. Same pitch, same volume.
I don’t believe the sound has changed one iota since it first caught my attention. I can hear it right this minute as I’m writing. I’m at my coworking space in downtown Portland. One other person is in the room with me and she’s working at her computer with her headphones on. There’s a spin class going somewhere in the building. I can hear the faint sound of their music. A few moments ago, a firetruck screamed by. All those sounds come from outside my head. As I said, the constant low hiss seems to originate inside my brain. Does that make sense? It can be maddening. Because it never changes!
Tinnitus cures? Nope
Of course, because it’s who I am, on day two I began doing extensive research. Apparently, I had tinnitus. Although I prefer the long-i sound of tin-eye-tus, the preferred pronunciation is with a short i, emphasis on the first syllable.
The information I found was not reassuring. According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), “There is currently no scientifically-validated cure for most types of tinnitus.”
I suppose I should have found it comforting that I am far from alone. Again from the ATA “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases.”
I have to say, every time I turn around I bump into a fellow tinnitus sufferer. I guess most of us suffer in silence — well, in low hissing, buzzing, whistling, clicking, and other annoying sounds.
My research took me to all kinds of websites and YouTube videos that promised me relief. I took the bait and listened through earphones to high, high, high pitched sounds, waterfalls, the wind, bells, white noise, pink noise, binaural beats. I tried resetting my 8th cranial nerve by tapping against a ridge in the lower part of my skull. I underwent hypnosis, which was a highly positive experience, in general, but the annoying sound and my inability to cope with it persisted.
Finally, I went to an audiologist who specializes in tinnitus. We started with a hearing test, which confirmed that I had a tiny bit of hearing loss in the far upper register. The audiologist told me that many, but not all people with hearing loss develop tinnitus. From what I’ve read, it’s the body’s way of filling in the gap in the auditory cortex of the brain that is caused by hearing loss — it fills it in with another sound.
Have you ever experienced hearing loss and a ringing in your ears after attending a loud concert? In most cases, it’s only a temporary case of tinnitus. That marvelous body of ours fills in the gap caused by the hearing loss with a new sound and then resets everything back to normal. If you scroll down this page to the comment section, you will see one from Daniel Krell. I encourage you to read it because he talks about the permanent damage that can be done because of noise exposure.
It’s not uncommon for musicians to develop tinnitus, along with members of the military who have been in combat situations. And the rest of us? Hearing loss, even a tiny bit, seems to be the main connection. Underlying health issues can also be a cause, so it’s a good idea to get a thorough checkup, just in case.
The audiologist I saw suggested special hearing aids and a program that would retrain my brain to help cope with the constant ringing. Both were quite expensive and I was also nowhere near ready to start wearing any kind of hearing aid.
What has happened in the last few years is that I simply got used to the noise. I can go all day and not “hear” it. I can also call it up in a split second, usually when I’m falling off to sleep or talking, thinking, or writing about it — like right now.
Since we’re on the subject, I decided to see if anything new was available in the way of treatments.
Here are some current treatment options:
- Listening to a sound or a tone that masks the sound in your head. I tried that before but figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it again. First of all, I found a website that helped me identify the frequency of my tinnitus. It’s10,000 HZ, which is pretty standard (and high-pitched). Then I listened to an audiotape of a sound at the same frequency for about 10 minutes. I was shocked because there was no noise in my head immediately after. Only lasted about 5 seconds, but still! I think that’s par for the course, but maybe if I listen regularly, the silence will last longer and longer.
- Modified-Sound / Notched-Music Devices — I hadn’t heard of these before. They’re considered medical-grade devices, and they play specially modified sounds that emphasize specific frequencies and tones.
- Hearing aids — read more information here.
- An external sound that distracts your attention from the internal sound
- I think hypnosis would fit into this category, also cognitive-behavioral therapy. They try to help you cope with or get used to the sound so that it isn’t front and center all the time.
- Neurons in the tongue are electrically stimulated, which activates neurons in the auditory system. Sounds are added to the mix and apparently, the process can rewire the part of the brain associated with tinnitus. Another option I hadn’t heard of before, but it’s not FDA approved, so not available in the United States yet. You’ll find more information here.
There are also some other experimental therapies available, such as deep brain stimulation (like what is used for people with Parkinson’s Disease), transcranial magnetic stimulation, and others. You can read about them here.
Any advice, anyone?
I have to admit that this is a rather self-serving blog post. I’m hoping that someone will have some useful information to pass along to me and the rest of us with tinnitus. Is there anything you have ever done or used that made your annoying sound go away? For more than five seconds?