More than 30 percent of people 55 and older must deal every day with a high-pitched ringing sound that never stops. This condition, known as subjective tinnitus, can keep you from focusing, falling asleep or even holding a simple, back-and-forth conversation. The ringing is always there, fighting for your attention.
Dr. Beth Alberto, an audiologist at Hearing Care of Summerville, knows how frustrating this can be.
“Tinnitus patients don’t feel in control anymore,” she said. “There’s nothing they can do to stop this God-awful sound.”
The problem is that chronic tinnitus is a function of the brain. As you grow older, the hair cells lining your inner ear are damaged, and the signals they send to your brain stop firing. But your brain still anticipates that these signals will come; when they don’t, it produces a ringing sound that has no physical origin. It’s a psychological mix-up similar to how amputees often feel a stinging sensation where their missing limb once was.
Since tinnitus is an auditory problem without any medicinal cure, doctors often give their patients little more than tough love. Learn to deal with it, they tell them.
“That’s the worst advice you can give someone,” Dr. Alberto said. “Because it’s simply not true. There are things that we can do to help.”
If you have tinnitus, Dr. Alberto recommended meeting with a licensed audiologist, such as those at Hearing Care of Summerville, who can talk to you and determine the severity of your condition. First they’ll ask you a few questions. Does your tinnitus make you feel annoyed, distressed or angry? How annoyed? How distressed? How angry? The next step is audiological testing or a tinnitus assessment. The way you respond will tell your audiologist exactly what type of treatment you need.
Sometimes therapy is as simple as re-evaluating your attitude.
“Patients wake up in the morning, and the first thing they do is check the loudness of their tinnitus. They think ‘Oh my God, it’s so loud today!’ Well, I want my patients to wake up and think ‘You know what, it’s not quite as loud as it was yesterday.’ Just by changing the way they perceive the tinnitus, they can change the way their brain reacts to it.”
Dr. Alberto also treats tinnitus with something called sound therapy.
“Say I put you in a dark room without any light except a single candle. What do you see? The candle. Then if I walk around the room and turn on the lights one by one, the candle gets dimmer and dimmer. It’s the same thing with sound. If tinnitus is the only sound in your environment, what will you hear? The tinnitus.
“We want to fill your auditory room with a complementary sound.” So for example, if your tinnitus keeps you awake at night, Dr. Alberto recommended turning on a ceiling fan or letting the 11 o’clock newscaster lull you to sleep. There are also special devices designed to counteract tinnitus, such as pillows that emit new-age music and headbands that fit over your ears and play calming sounds.
“My favorite sound is a crackling fire,” said Dr. Alberto. “When my tinnitus acts up, I need that crackling fire. It’s a sound that, for me, always brings the peace.”
For more information on tinnitus, call 843-871-9669 or visit www.lifeisworthhearing.com.
By Jeramy Baker