Tinnitus Is Hell’s Soundtrack, but Will the Ringing Ever Stop?
Searching for a cure to the nightmare condition that sentences sufferers to a lifetime of "BEEEEEEEEEEP."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Around ten years ago I went to see the now defunct Aussie beer-rockers Jet at the UK's also now defunct Oxford Zodiac. The gig still resonates with me today. Not because the band or any of their music is particularly memorable, but because, since that show, I've been permanently tormented by what sounds like a jet engine being fired directly into my ears.
I played drums as a teenager and went to college during the mini-movement dubbed the "New Rock Revolution" by NME—a time so musically exciting that going to fewer than three gigs a week wasn't really an option. I was used to my ears ringing for a few days after seeing the Libertines, or Interpol, or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but after that Jet show, it just stayed.
My ears roaring, Google (it was probably Yahoo back then, actually) told me that I had tinnitus: the internal perception, often permanent, of sound when no external sound is present. I was livid that I'd been changed like this by doing nothing more than what I assumed were common activities: playing a musical instrument and going to shows.
It is thought that around 10 percent of the UK population has tinnitus—so that's about 6.5 million members of the Screaming Ears Club being recognized over the next seven days for Tinnitus Awareness Week. Each of these sufferer's afflictions is different: Sometimes it's a high-pitched ringing; sometimes it's another sound, such as irregular clicking; sometimes it's just in one ear; sometimes it's in both. People can get it after activities such as scuba diving or following an ear infection, but for young people the most frequent cause is noise exposure.
Unsurprisingly, the condition is widespread among musicians. Hearing damage can occur when sound volume exceeds 80 decibels, and with a loud gig clocking in at around 115 decibels, a whole tour's worth of loud gigs is a pretty surefire way to do your ears in.
"Without a doubt I have tinnitus," Liam Gallagher has said. "You're not a proper rock 'n' roll star if you don't." Will.i.am left himself exposed to an association with chronically annoying noises when he revealed that he had it badly, and Chris Martin's affliction has made headlines. There are countless more examples.
Despite these high-profile sufferers talking about tinnitus—and despite an annual Tinnitus Awareness Week—public awareness of the risks of getting the condition is pitifully low. Speak to any gig-goers who have it and they'll almost always say they hadn't heard the T-word until they'd already been sentenced to a lifetime of "BEEEEEEEEEEP."
Dominic Ganderton, singer in Britpoppy Birmingham four-piece Superfood, says that age is a big factor for this lack of awareness. "I used to go to rock clubs when I was thirteen, go up to speakers, and put my ear by them when good songs came on," he says. "Now I think, What the fuck was I doing? It's a communication problem. No one told me."
Dominic continues: "I'm 23 now, and I must have been about 19 when I was first going to bed and listening, going, Shit, I can really hear something here. I've been playing in bands since I was 11. I've been to so many practice rooms, but I never saw a poster explaining it, or was told that loud music can damage your ears, even though that sounds like such an obvious statement."
Another person angry about the lack of awareness of tinnitus risk is Eddy Temple-Morris, MTV presenter in the 1990s and current host of XFM's The Remix show. His ears first got mutilated by a Van Halen gig in the 70s, and he's since become an ambassador for the British Tinnitus Association, campaigning to make more people aware of the condition. He's become a sort of kindly uncle figure for kids with fucked ears, spending plenty of time chatting to new tinnitus sufferers on email and Twitter.
"I find it offensive that the UK government has spent millions letting us know that we might burn our finger on a fucking firework on the fifth of November," he says. "How many public health ads have you seen for that? One in ten people have tinnitus, yet the government spends nothing on telling people that they might be getting what is essentially brain damage."
As people like Dominic, Eddy, and myself realized too late—and as is the case for any preventable ailment—prevention is better than cure. That's particularly true for tinnitus, of course, because there isn't actually any cure.
Currently the most effective treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus are largely limited to hearing aids and surgery to have implants related to the cochlea—a tiny part of the inner ear. It is thought that when hair cells in the cochlea get damaged by loud noise, tinnitus can follow.
These treatments are either highly invasive or not exactly fashionable, unless you happen to be Morrissey in the late 80s. According to Dr. Ralph Holme, head of biomedical research at UK research-funding charity Action on Hearing Loss, "They are great treatments, but they are just a sticky plaster on the problem. We need to understand the causes to be able to develop treatments."
Everyone with tinnitus yearns for a magic pill to banish the screeching, in the same way that painkillers end a headache. I'd cut off at least three of my fingers for one, no question. But while such a pill is unlikely to be a reality any time soon, Holme is still excited by drug research in the area.
There is good recent evidence suggesting that as well as damage to hair cells in the cochlea causing tinnitus, connections between those cells and the brain could also become damaged by noise exposure. Based on this, research at the University of Western Australia has suggested that the medicine Furosemide could be effective in repairing this damage.
"The research suggests there may be a narrow window [where treatment could work] after the noise exposure," says Holme. "For animals, it might be around eight weeks, then the tinnitus enters a second phase and becomes established in the brain."
Various clinical trials involving drugs containing Furosemide are taking place, and it may not be too long before they hit the market. But don't get too excited—it might sound like a sort of morning after-pill for the ears is on its way, but Holme has warned against anyone getting their hopes up quite yet. "We don't know how effective the drugs will be yet," he says. "Tinnitus isn't one condition, it's a symptom of lots of different things. We might need a whole battery of drugs to treat different types of it."§
After ten years of having tinnitus, I've learned to accept it simply because there is no other option. The ringing in my ears went from "pretty annoying" to "power-drill annoying" in 2010, after watching Guns 'N' Roses' Leeds Festival set—a medical indignity even worse than the Jet incident.
It was a hellish time. I'd get up at 2 AM and walk for hours around London alone to tire myself out so I could sleep; it affected relationships and made me constantly scared of noise (not ideal, considering I was features editor of NME at the time). I mention this not for comment-box sympathy but to prove that you do return from the lowest depths. I still sleep very little and find my tinnitus highly annoying, but I got used to it. The brain adjusts, you notice it less, and you accept you've just got to get on with living with tinnitus rather than being mentally dominated by it.
Current research into treatments is exciting. But with researchers mainly relying on money from under-funded charities such as Action on Hearing Loss and the American Tinnitus Association in the US, that one magic pill is unlikely to hit stores in our lifetimes.
As such, it can all seem a bit hopeless. But now, if you've got tinnitus already, understand that however bad it seems it will get easier if you look after yourself and follow tips like the ones listed below. And if you haven't got tinnitus, then do everything you can from now on to ensure you stay that way. (If you need any more inspiration, lie down next to a speaker playing "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" at top volume and see how long it takes you to get to sleep.)
Get Professional-Level Earplugs, Now
To stop yourself from getting tinnitus in the first place—or to stop it getting worse—buy some professional-style molded earplugs. Advanced Communications Solutions make brilliant plugs that you can barely feel or see, and that retain sound quality. They cost around $200 to $300, but you can get decent off-the-rack plugs for about $30 that are better than nothing. Dr. Ralph Holme added: "Always take breaks from music, too—the damage is caused by length of time listening as well as volume."
Talk to Others in the Tinnitus Club
Having tinnitus can make you feel like you're alone. You're not—millions of people have it. Superfood singer Dominic Ganderton: "I have a friend who has it just like I do. It's a real comfort, and when we're at parties we talk about the 'tinnitus club.'"
Lay Off the Cocaine
Caffeine and alcohol are thought to aggravate tinnitus. Eddy Temple-Morris: "Any uppers are bad. Cocaine: terrible. Speed... anything like that makes it rage."
Don't Go into Denial
A huge part of living with tinnitus is learning to be OK with it. Dominic: "Pretending to block it out can be a bad tactic, and it can make you manic, feeling like you always have to be talking or moving. Accept that you have it, and there's more chance your brain will accept the pattern."
Cook in Your Head
Masking tinnitus with music or a white noise app works well, and so does keeping your brain occupied with active thoughts. Eddy: "I had terrible insomnia, so now I watch a cooking show before I go to bed, then do the recipe in my head in real time—chopping the onions and everything. I'm asleep before I finish the meal."
Eddy: "Anything that takes your mind off tinnitus is good. Have sex. Masturbate. I said this on TV and got a lot of messages about it."
If you suffer from tinnitus—or if you just want to find out more about the condition—visit the American Tinnitus Association.