Tinnitus is a bitch. That whistling or ringing – some describe it as a buzzing or hissing – sound in your ear is an experience we’ve all had. For most people it’s a passing annoyance, something that leaves as quickly as it comes on. For a few it’s seemingly a life sentence, a constant that can cause insomnia and depression.
Personally, my tinnitus was brought on by a single, ear-drum splitting blast. A doctor later told me that the whistling in my ears was a result of that blast knocking over the tiny hair cells in my ears, so that they were constantly hearing a sound that they ordinarily wouldn’t.
However there are a variety of causes for tinnitus.
If you spent years labouring away in a loud workplace – like, as in building-site loud, not an overly gossipy office – you’re likely to eventually develop it. Likewise if you play in a band or frequently attend gigs without wearing appropriate sound-reducing ear equipment.
An inner-ear infection, or a build-up of wax can be the culprit, as can conditions such as Ménière’s disease or otosclerosis.
Curiously, it can also be brought on by non-physical issues – people have developed tinnitus after the death of a loved one, or after losing their job. As such tinnitus is not purely an ear issue, the brain definitely plays a part.
In fact, even when there is an obvious physical issue that’s brought about the condition, the brain is still involved in tinnitus, upping your level of background hearing as a means of protecting the ears against the loud, foreground sound that is doing the damage.
This can be a positive – while the ringing in your ears may not abate, your brain can compensate over time, essentially learning to ignore the sound. However it also means that curing tinnitus is extremely tricky, because you’re often not just treating a physical ailment but also a mental one.
As such, oftentimes the best thing a person suffering tinnitus can do is try to treat the symptoms – get rid of the ringing, even if it’s only for a little while.
If you’re a fan of Archer, you’ll be familiar with the jaw-flexing technique (“mawp”) to alleviate the ringing.
The idea is to stretch the sternocleidomastoid muscle, which connects to the head just below the ear. As such, it is thought that this method is most likely to work on tinnitus which has been caused by head, neck or jaw problems, rather than by your fellow secret agent firing their gun next to your head.
Another method plenty swear by is a technique whereby you drum the back of your skull with your fingers. We’ll let Dr Jan Strydom from A 2 Z of Health, Beauty and Fitness explain:
To perform this technique, put the palms of your hands over your ears. The fingers are on the back of the head. The middle fingers point towards each other and are on the base of the skull just above the point where the skull ends.
Now lift the index fingers and place them on top of the middle fingers and then snap the index fingers off the middle fingers so that they beat the skull like a drum. In fact, with your hands covering your ears, the sound may be quite loud and may indeed sound like the beating of a drum…
Repeat the drumming about 40 to 50 times. Depending on the severity of the condition, one could repeat the technique several times a day.
White noise can help you to ignore the sounds in your ear, particularly when you’re trying to sleep.
There’s a school of thought that avoiding caffeine will help prevent tinnitus, although a study from Brigham and Women’s hospital released last year found the opposite was true, that there’s a “significant inverse association between caffeine intake and the incidence of tinnitus”.
For most people, tinnitus will come and go throughout their lives and be as inconvenient as a case of the hiccups – it’ll annoy you, but it’ll pass. And, just like hiccups, there are a variety of methods that can get rid of the annoyance, you just have to find the one that works for you.
I’ve now had the condition for 10 years, but I’m reluctant to describe myself as a ‘sufferer’ of tinnitus. It’s just there, quietly ringing away in the the back of my right ear. I can’t swear by any of the above methods as a long-term fix, but then after two operations I still have a perforation in my right ear drum, so there’s certainly a physical issue contributing.
Unless I make a conscious effort to acknowledge or think about my tinnitus (like by writing a piece about the issue) it’s pretty easy to just ignore – which didn’t seem remotely possible even after a year of having it.
Ultimately, time is the great healer, and it seems it’s your best bet for dealing with tinnitus.