Monday, April 2, 2012

Living with hearing damage - Part I

Now that I’ve decided to ‘come out’ about my hearing issues, a lot of people have been asking me for some insight. It seems I’m not the only one who has paid a price for playing too loud for too long. And let’s face it, you will have a tough time finding a musician who has not had at least some hearing damage; it’s a risk of the trade. So I thought I’d spend a bit of time sharing what I’ve learned about what can go wrong and what can be done about it. There is some good news and some not so good news, but I think the most important thing is to be armed with accurate information so you know what you’re dealing with.

First up: Tinnitus (TIN -i-tus)

Tinnitus is defined as any sort of a sound than you can hear but is not caused by an external source (that’s my own definition; the specialists are still arguing about the technical minutia and are using words even weirder than ‘minutia’). Tinnitus can range from a short-lived ringing that lasts just a few seconds, never to return, to a sheet metal works living inside your head. It can be caused by a variety of things including certain diseases and drugs as well as head injuries. It also seems to be tightly linked to noise exposure.

The range of potential phantom noises is quite something. I remember once going from room to room looking for a radio someone had left on – it was playing oldies from the late 50s – only to discover that it was in fact my tinnitus. Sports professionals talk about freight trains, bells and explosions, but more often it comes down to a simple ring or hiss.

Medical professionals, for the most part, have no clue. They fall back on two remedies: live with it or cover it up. Well, it’s easy for someone who doesn’t have it to tell someone else to live with it. The other ‘solution’ is to hide it under designer noise. One audiologist I visited early on in my venture prescribed masking devices. Looking like hearing aids, they would be tuned to my tinnitus and then produce a noise that would block out the ringing. And they cost a mere $400 each. On the way home that day, I stopped at Canadian Tire and bought a $20 fan that produced enough sound to ‘mask’ my tinnitus enough to let me sleep.

Incidentally, that fan was a great revelation. I later wrote an article for a tinnitus newsletter about the fan and my take on why it worked. The sound it produced was nowhere near loud enough to block out the noise, but it did give my brain something else to focus on, and that was the gist of my article. What I also got from the article, and my brief subscription to the newsletter, was that focussing on the tinnitus was actually a large part of the problem.

So my solution has been to try to ignore it. Doesn’t sound like much of solution, but it turns out to be the core of a successful tinnitus treatment. Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) attacks the problem by teaching the brain to focus on something else. I won’t go into details here, but the retraining helps the brain rediscover how to ignore sounds that don’t matter, and to apply it to the tinnitus. The Tinnitus Centre in the UK reports an 80% success rate, so it may be worth looking into.

I think the main message I want to get across here is that tinnitus is a permanent condition, but it is not a death sentence. It also is not a degenerative disease. If you are no longer mistreating your hearing, there is no reason your tinnitus should get any worse. While saying ‘live with it’ may sound facetious, it really is the only option. Most of the people I’ve talked to are bothered by their tinnitus, and often their degree of distress is as much a problem as the tinnitus itself. If they can find a way to not worry about it, things will improve. The one piece of advice I can give is this: Don’t hide from every day sounds. They give you something else to focus on.

And when the tinnitus is bothersome, maybe it’s time to head to Canadian Tire.

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