This sucks. It’s one of those problems that has gone from intermittent to nearly-constant. There’s really nothing to be done about it. I ask my doctor every few years, just in case. But no, there is no cure. There’s not even much to do about tinnitus. When at home or in the car, I mask it by playing music. At school, our students are generally noisy enough to drown it out.
My tinnitus is usually a high-pitched squeal, about 14-17 kHz, like a mosquito that whines for long periods, seemingly next to my left ear. The whine gets louder or softer, but rarely goes away. When it does, it returns with a sudden *pop*, as though someone turned on a radio. Once in a great while it’s stereophonic buzzing static in both ears, or even a fluttering sensation like a butterfly stuck on my left ear, but those are pretty rare. I know that I’m not just hearing actual machinery because I’ve heard it when standing surrounded by hectares of prairie, without a single operating machine in sight or earshot.
The good news is that I have no reduction in my general hearing. The problem did make itself known after I’d been working in noisy labs for several months. Well, I thought they were noisy labs. One had 15 computer CPUs set atop the tables, the poster-size printer, and the ranks of fluorescent lights. The other where I spent even more time had a wind tunnel, HID (High-Intensity Discharge) & fluorescent lights, three computers, steam-heat radiators, and a couple of incubators.
The others working in the latter lab didn’t think it was loud, but after a couple years of sharing the space I learned that none of the three could hear all of the high frequencies that I could; one guy outright said he had some hearing loss at high tones. The others asserted they could hear fine because they had passed hearing exams. However, the average hearing exam only tests in the 250 – 8,000 Hz (8 kHz) range, which are of interest to audiologists because those are the tones for human speech. Because human hearing should go up to 20 kHz, a person can pass a hearing exam and yet still not have full range of hearing. Even so, one has to be around noises that are 80 dB or louder to sustain hearing damage, the labs weren’t that noisy, and I don’t have hearing loss.
My world just sounds like I’m always around noisy machinery of some sort, as though my head’s parked next to an aging hard drive. (Insert polysyllabic expletive of choice here.)
The down side is that sometimes the extra “background noise” aggravates my comprehension of what people are saying, in addition to the auditory processing issues. I wear a bite-block at night, which is great for preventing TMJ headaches, but sadly does nothing one way or t’other about the tinnitus. Because of the migraines and such, my head’s been CT-scanned and MRI’d a couple of times, and the radiologists say it looks normal. (Presumably on the gross physical level, howsoever my brain actually operates.) No one really knows what causes the problem.
Tinnitus is hard to describe to people who are not familiar with the condition. “I hear things that aren’t there,” only earns one suspicious sideways glances. The other week I finally came up with an analogy that adequately described the obnoxious qualities, if not the actual tone:
“It’s like having private reception to the cicada-radio channel:
All cicadas, all the time!”
Mostly what one can do about tinnitus is to simply accept that it’s there, that it’s probably gonna stay being there. In addition to masking the imaginary noise with more pleasant, real noise, the best one can do is to re-frame one’s attitude. I mean, you gotta find a way of becoming habituated and dealing with it. Otherwise it’s annoying as hell, and could drive you nutz or make you depressed.
I’ve a mythical beastie
What lives by my ear,
You can’t hear it, so have no fear.
But the hell of tinnitus is,
I just can’t get rid
Of this noisy chimera,
So I’ve named my companion, Syd.
(Tinnitus not only isn’t glamorous, it also makes for mediocre poetry.)