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Tinnitus: From banging tunes to burglar alarms

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Image to reflect the plethora of sounds that impact sufferers of tinnitus

Alan Dillon, Head of Chancery from the British Embassy Muscat, on his experience of living with the hearing condition, tinnitus.

Buzzing, whooshing, humming, ringing, throbbing, hissing, music, singing.’

Dr Seuss could have hardly described it better had he rewritten his famous book Horton Hears a Who! for a version in which the elephant had tinnitus rather than extraordinary hearing. But the words above are, in fact, from the NHS’s health guide on the auditory disorder which the British Tinnitus Association says affects approximately one third of the UK population at some point in their lives.  

7-13 February marks Tinnitus Awareness Week, an annual event which aims to increase understanding of the perception of sound in the absence of any being made externally.  

For some sufferers, it is a temporary disorder brought on by an underlying problem, but for 8% of the British population, it is permanent.  It’s not known what exactly causes tinnitus, although medical professionals agree that it’s neither an illness nor a disease. It is actually brought on by a ‘change’ which alters the flow of information to the brain.

Alan Dillon, Head of Chancery, British Embassy Muscat, FCDO
Author Alan Dillon enjoying early morning dawn chorus in Muscat (and imaginary burglar alarms)

Always with me

I have had tinnitus for just over half my life. It appeared around the time I lost part of my hearing in my left ear following acoustic trauma (exposure to a sudden, extremely loud sound). It is always with me, and is the first thing I hear when I wake up and the last thing I hear before falling asleep.  

When things are going well, it is for the most part just slightly annoying and hardly noticeable, but it has the ability to ‘pump up the volume’ and be in full Dolby Stereo when I am dehydrated, highly-caffeinated or over-tired.  

If I wear my hearing aid for long periods, that too can bring my tinnitus to the forefront. Regardless of my physical or mental wellbeing, my worst scenario is being in a silent space with nothing to mask or drown out my tinnitus, although the alternative of the constant chatter of background noise does little to help my limited hearing. That said, I doubt I am alone in occasionally yearning for just a few minutes of absolute silence – I’ve heard it can be golden!

Everyone’s tinnitus is different.  My constant audio irritant is a high-pitched pulsing ringing, sometimes accompanied by waves of fast clicking. Occasionally, my internal DJ decides to throw in a sudden mid-range tone which fades in and out for a few minutes.  

There was a time when what I hear all day – every day - might have made the top 40 rave or alternative music charts. Sadly, I’ve long-stopped making cardboard box shapes on the dance floor and there’s no ‘off’ switch. 

Barbie on repeat

I suffer from what is known as pulsatile tinnitus although some people suffer from a purer form of musical tinnitus, or musical hallucinations, which is the experience of hearing a few bars or fragments of music despite none being played (with apologies to any Aqua fans, there can’t be anything worse than having Barbie Girl on constant repeat).  

Image of a brain impacted by tinnitus

I find that when I am busy, my brain is distracted so is unable to work up an internal playlist. The second I stop, however, it will try its best to press the play button.  

Limited hearing range

I have learnt to live with tinnitus, although it’s rather ironic that despite having a very limited hearing range in my left ear, the sounds I think I am hearing are high frequency, something I haven’t actually heard for more than 27 years.

Joking aside, some people suffer very badly from tinnitus, depriving them of sleep, affecting their mental wellbeing or as a particular source of stress.  Although there is currently no absolute cure, there is plenty of advice and professional support available such as the British Tinnitus Association and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID).  

Sound therapy

For some, tinnitus can be successfully treated by sound therapy which is the introduction of neutral sounds that distract the brain. Counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and tinnitus retraining therapy can also help sufferers understand their disorder and try various coping methods. 

If you think you might have tinnitus and haven’t already done so, I encourage you to see your GP in the first instance. If you’re a sufferer, I hope you will consider sharing your experience in the comments below, maybe describing the sounds that only you can hear and how you cope with tinnitus.

The CSDHHN welcomes new members with all types of hearing impairments. Why not visit the network's webpage to find out more.

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  1. Comment by Tracy posted on

    I've lived with hyperacusis and tinnitus for a long time - a constant high pitched whine sometimes with a middle tone and/or a low hum. I never bothered going to the doctor because I didn't think anything could be done. After a move to a different office, the acoustics were exacerbating the hyperacusis to the point of sound sensitive migraines. My team leader at the time arranged an OHS referral, and part of that was I had to go to the GP. I thought it was just to tick a box and was so surprised when the GP referred me to the audiology department of a local hospital. That referral ruled out any physical reason (damaged eardrums, deformation of the small bones etc.) and also meant that I was offered a white noise generator to try and retrain my brain to process sound normally and to have a neutral sound to focus on instead of the tinnitus. It helps more than I would ever have believed possible.
    I also sometimes experience audio hallucinations - sometimes it's voices speaking my name, sometimes it's music. It's reassuring to learn that this is not uncommon with hearing disorders like this.

  2. Comment by Rose posted on

    I long for silence. It can be depressing knowing that is never going to happen and that that whines and droning aren't going anywhere. Having been repeatedly been told that wearing my hearing aids should help with the tinnitus - it is reassuring to hear from you and others that actually it can make it worse. For me whenever I am wear my hearing aids means that I struggle to ignore the tinnitus, it actually feels louder to me.

    • Replies to Rose>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Rose, many thanks for sharing your experience. There have been times when I have put my h/a in, my tinnitus has become less noticeable but have also had occasions when I have had to take them out because the sensation is unbearable. You have my sympathies.

  3. Comment by Marie posted on

    Thanks for sharing Alan. I can't remember when I didnt have the hissing in my ear. The crackles come on every so often. If Im busy, yes, I'm able not to pay it so much attention but when its quiet it can become unbearable (maybe thats why I have the TV on in the background whilst Im working from home?). My tinnitus tends to get worse when my anxiety/depression levels are high which then increases my anxiety levels. I empathise with all in this comment chain and all who suffer from the condition.

    • Replies to Marie>

      Comment by David posted on

      I'm too far from the TV to have that on at home. Instead, I have YouTube music all day, just babbling in the background (often through my headphones).

      I couldn't cope without something to distract me from the wild hisssssssssss that has become my constant waking companion.

      Returning to work in an office environment in the coming weeks might help with the constant distracting background noise from colleagues, but I'm not 100% sure...

  4. Comment by Melanie posted on

    Thank you for sharing your experience with tinnitus. I have had it for probably 15-20 years. I have hearing loss in my right ear and wear a hearing aid. I think I got it from listening to loud music when I was much younger. If only I could go back in time!
    It has helped the tinnitus but only in volume rather than in frequency. I have a constant high pitch whine/buzzing sign. I used to have quite loud clicking but that has virtually stopped unless I am really tired or stressed. I use a few different tinnitus apps to help me get to sleep but they don't always work.

    • Replies to Melanie>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Melanie, many thanks for sharing. If only we could all go back in time...

  5. Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

    Dear Gillian, many thanks for your kind words. Just within the small sample above it is clear how diverse our experience of tinnitus is but also in trying to describe what we think we are hearing.

  6. Comment by Gillian Purkis posted on

    Alan, Thanks to you and the others I have learnt so much more about Tinnitus from your own personal perspectives and the range of sounds that you hear and how you cope. As someone who is hard of hearing myself I have had times in my life where I have experienced buzzing pulsing sounds in one ear, usually for a day or two, so I fully sympathise with everyone on this blog and wish you all the best,

  7. Comment by Lee Smale posted on

    I suffered from Tinnitus for many years, then I stumbled upon a cure. Here's the funny part: in one particular way the Tinnitus turned out to be a blessing in disguise; and the cure turned out to be a partial loss of that blessing; why? The type I had was when you can here one note only, which went on all day and night and drove me mad. The result of this one note gave me a profound appreciation of music (because it makes you desperate to hear that note go up and/or down, as it does in a melody) After the cure, I lost the profound appreciation of music (because it doesn't matter now, if I hear a melody or not) I still like music and play my guitar, but I'm not melody-desperate any more. So be careful what you wish for.

    • Replies to Lee Smale>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Lee, many thanks for sharing. I won't ask how you cured your tinnitus as I might not like the outcome.

  8. Comment by Lisa Francis posted on

    Thank you for sharing. I was diagnosed with tinnitus last year which is attributed to hearing loss in my right ear. Interestingly my hearing aid can also cause it to be worse when I wear it for long periods. I tend to try and use distractions in the main to help but at night it's particularly bothersome. I'm glad people are talking about the condition and hearing loss in general, it's something I've taken some time to come to terms with but blogs like this help.

    • Replies to Lisa Francis>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Lisa, all of our experiences help raise awareness so thank you for sharing your experience of tinnitus in the blog.

  9. Comment by John Constantinoff posted on

    Thank you for sharing. I've had tinnitus for about 25 years and can identify with a lot of what you've described. My personal soundtrack is a hiss like I've got a group of builders sandblasting the house 24/7. I would echo that the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) can provide lots of support and advice. If someone is new to tinnitus the BTA are good for reassurance and advice about things to ask and discuss if you are having an appointment with your GP.

    • Replies to John Constantinoff>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear John, many thanks for sharing your experience of tinnitus and for signposting where people can find help and advice.

  10. Comment by Simon posted on

    What an excellent blog ! Much of it very familiar -especially the 'no such thing as silence' comment. I've had very high pitched tinnitus in both ears for about 25 years now, possibly caused by damage to my ears when they were syringed to get rid of some wax.

    My message to anyone who is quite new to this experience is that you can, and you will, get used to it.

    • Replies to Simon>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Simon, thanks for your kind words about the blog and for sharing your tinnitus experience. I don't know how many years it took me to get used to it but I guess I am just about there now!

  11. Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

    Dear Lisa. Many thanks for sharing your tinnitus experience. A not so different incident was to blame for my own loss of hearing and resultant tinnitus. Hopefully the days of fingers in ears or rolled up 4x2 flannelette are long gone.

  12. Comment by Lisa posted on

    While I was a CSI I was sent on an explosives course and on the first day one of the lecturers walked in to the lecture room and threw some sort of small explosive (I think maybe a bit of detonation cord?) and it exploded next to me. For the rest of the training we watched cars blown up etc, with just the 'fingers in the ears' kind of thing, My ears were buzzing, and hissing and nobody gave us ear protection until the last minutes of the last day. Our group, foolishly didnt think to ask! 18 years later I still have terrible tinnitus in the left ear. You dont always realise the long-term damage that can be done, until its too late.

  13. Comment by Jonathan posted on

    Thank you so much for sharing this. You've got me wondering now as I have had, for as long as I can remember, a subtle high pitched whine/whistle/hiss. It's particularly noticeable when there is a quiet period, I've oddly wondered in the past if it's possible to hear the silence as that was what it felt like. I've also wondered if it's literally just the sound of blood rushing through the veins and arteries in and around my ears.
    If I can ever get a face to face with my Doctor again I shall see if there is a way to get it checked.

    • Replies to Jonathan>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Jonathan, thanks for sharing this. I hope you do get the chance to speak to your GP about your symptoms as it may be that you have tinnitus.

    • Replies to Jonathan>

      Comment by Tracy W posted on

      Johnathan, like you I have had tinnitus for as long as I can remember. I was well into adulthood before I realised it wasn't normal to hear sound all the time. I describe mine like the clangers, I have a constant hiss/whine/white noise type background with other tones randomly added in. I find it challenging when vacuuming as I am constantly feeling like I can hear the phone ringing or the door bell going. Like many of you I find background noise helps to block it out. I go to bed with the TV or radio on so I have some sound to fall asleep to otherwise you start to listen to the tinnitus and that just makes it worse. I think because I have lived all my life with it and don't know any different I don't find it too depressing. When at home alone I have the radio on a lot so there is something to listen to. I wear hearing aids in both ears as I have no high pitch hearing, possibly because it gets lost in the tinnitus. I find conversation difficult as I am constantly trying to decipher what people are saying from the bits I have heard and frequently get it wrong.

  14. Comment by Judith posted on

    Mine is a roaring - it started quite suddenly in late 2019 / early 2020 one morning sitting up in bed. I put it down to stress - my dad had recently had surgery for lung cancer and my mum diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. Sometimes it was at the beginning so loud it drowned out other people speaking - it still can though not so often. Mum passed away but I don't think the stress level has really reset. The roaring is still here. Playing the radio helps me to get to sleep. Too much caffeine, alcohol, stress or being tired, all make it worse. I might finally go to the GP about it. Cold shower helps in the morning! And consciously relaxing the jaw and neck. Very best wishes to all who experience it and hopes everyone finds their own way to manage it.

    • Replies to Judith>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Judith, man thanks for sharing your tinnitus. I am sorry to hear of the circumstances that might have brought it on. Please accept my sympathies. I hope your GP is able to provide some support or advice to help manage the constant roar.

  15. Comment by Alex Hannaford posted on

    Thank you for sharing your story. My tinnitus arrived with my first Covid jab so I am relatively new to life with a constant high frequency whine going on all the time. I notice it less when I am busy or doing something I really enjoy like sport. It definitely makes me more empathetic to people who are suffering from much worse symptoms than mine.

    • Replies to Alex Hannaford>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Alex, thank you for sharing your tinnitus. Hopefully your symptoms are only temporary although it is fine motivation for keeping busy and doing something you enjoy.

    • Replies to Alex Hannaford>

      Comment by Polina posted on

      Hi Alex,
      I would advise to get in touch with the British Tinnitus Association. They are keeping track of covid and jab related tinnitus. I understand there has been jabs that resulted in a newly found tinnitus.

    • Replies to Alex Hannaford>

      Comment by Carolyn posted on

      This also happened to me after vaccine 1 and then much worse after vaccine 2. I have since been diagnosed with Meniere's disease (vertigo, vomiting and ongoing tinnitus). My registrar said they are seeing more of this now.

  16. Comment by Lisa posted on

    My Tinnitus was diagnosed around March 2016 following a heavy head cold. I get a high pitched hissing a bit like a cross between an old fashioned kettle coming to the boil and a gas tap being left on in the lab when I was in school. It is with me constantly and is of such a pitch that I can hear it over the TV. When I am stressed it spikes (becomes much louder and more bothersome) and can be more screechy than hissing. It can affect my concentration when it impinges on the part of my brain that is trying to concentrate. Sometimes use music on my iPad or the radio to try and block out the constant screeching and help me to concentrate. It doesn't always work though.

    • Replies to Lisa>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Lisa, many thanks for sharing your tinnitus sample. That it was brought on by a head cold shows who vulnerable we all are. I live in hope that it isn't permanent (although I have been waiting for a long long time now) and hope that one day soon, your torturous kettle will be taken off the boil.

      • Replies to Alan Dillon>

        Comment by Lisa posted on

        Thanks Alan. Only time will tell. We have a peer support group where I work and had a very interesting meeting last week including a guest speaker from the BTA. For me, more bothersome than the noise are the days I can't concentrate well as that annoys me and makes me feel less productive than I want to be. Immersive Reader is great for long web pages and documents though as it is like listening to a podcast and i am hopeful that at least some information is retained.

    • Replies to Lisa>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Lisa, you have my sympathies. I am not sure I could handle a boiling kettle accompanied by the odd screech. Many thanks for sharing.

  17. Comment by Ruth posted on

    Thanks for your blog. I’ve suffered from tinnitus for about 15years in varying severity. Mine is a constant high pitch ringing that’s particularly pronounced when everything is silent (not background noise) or when I’m stressed. Never really thought of it as a hearing disorder although at times it is more than an annoyance. But it’s so loud at times, my husband does say I talk louder when it’s bad. I do have trouble hearing. Funny what we put up with without taking ourselves seriously.

    • Replies to Ruth>

      Comment by Alan Dillon posted on

      Dear Ruth, many thanks for reading my blog and for sharing your own experience. I sometimes think that I wouldn't mind having musical tinnitus if I could choose the playlist but maybe we should always be careful what we pray for. I count myself lucky that I can laugh at my constant tones, whistles and clicks but do feel for those who struggle on a daily basis to live with their tinnitus.