What does tinnitus sound and feel like to the one in ten people in the UK who live with it?
Musician and music producer Peter describes his life coping with tinnitus as like “hugging a vacuum cleaner and learning to laugh at it.”
Peter was very frustrated to learn that tinnitus has proved to be difficult to measure and that we must rely largely on anecdotal evidence even to demonstrate its existence.
So he has re-created the sound of his particular form of tinnitus using his music software to help others to better understand this hidden condition – listen to Peter’s sound below.
“Being interested in audio as part of my job, I have managed to re-create the sound of my tinnitus pretty accurately using my music software.
“What is harder to put across to others is how it feels in my head and the disruptive effect it has on me.
“It’s not like an itch or anything that you can forget about after a few minutes; it forces your attention relentlessly. This is not like the noise of a car alarm, traffic or a ticking clock which can be filtered out over time.
“If you can imagine the struggle to think clearly whilst hugging a vacuum cleaner, that’s in the right ball park.
“Not so bad you might think? But consider coping with this all day every day and trying to sleep with it constantly re-asserting itself like an alarm which you can’t switch off or ignore.”
Tinnitus is defined as the sensation of hearing noises in your ear, ears or head when there is no external source. It manifests itself differently for different people.
It is commonly called ‘ringing in the ear’, but different sounds can be heard, for example, whistling, whooshing, buzzing or rumbling. These sounds can be continuous or they can come and go.
So Peter does not recognise overexposure to loud noise as a cause of his tinnitus. In his case the problem seems to stem from a period of high stress in his life.
He does urge people who like loud music to use hearing protection right from the start, however, as tinnitus can be associated with damage to hearing from repeated exposure to excessive noise.
“I am usually fine whilst working, which in my case involves a lot of listening to music, but as soon as I stop, oh boy do I pay the price. The tinnitus rushes in and tries to take me over. It appears even louder for a while at the end of a session, then gradually returns to its normal state.
“I have read quite a lot about ‘habituation’, which is a mental strategy which tries to minimise the invasive effects of tinnitus, in other words learning to live with it, push it aside and ignore it.
“I think my tinnitus is unchanged, but my attitude to it has become more positive over time. I am always ready to try new tricks to manage and diminish its effect on me.
“I will continue with habituation techniques. It’s hard to accept that it’s physically a fairly harmless problem; it doesn’t hurt like an injury and it won’t kill me. If I can learn mental tricks or even just laugh at the ridiculous image of hugging a vacuum cleaner, then that’s all positive.”
Peter has also started taking part in the activities of the Shropshire Tinnitus Support Group.
This mutual support network enables people to share their experiences of living with tinnitus with people who understand and exchange coping strategies. Participants can also learn from expert speakers and try out helpful equipment.
The volunteer-led group meets in Shrewsbury and Wellington, Telford, every quarter and holds monthly drop-in sessions in both locations in the months when there isn’t a quarterly meeting.
Anyone affected by tinnitus is welcome to come along. At the quarterly meetings participants have enjoyed interactive presentations by experts in fields ranging from psychological therapies and nutrition to laughter yoga and creative writing.
Signal established the Shropshire Tinnitus Support Group in partnership with Shropshire NHS Audiology and supports its development. The group’s volunteer facilitator, Fiona, experiences tinnitus herself and has received training from the British Tinnitus Association.