by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
This is the second of three tinnitus stories. In contrast to “Jim’s” gradual drift into tinnitus, “Audrey” was suddenly plunged into it. Here is her story.
I developed tinnitus very suddenly in 1993 when I was 38 years old. Before that day, I had excellent hearing and balance. I was in graduate school at the time, and just before class, my Professor asked me if I felt OK. She said I didn’t look good—but agreed with me that it might just be the usual end-of-the-semester exhaustion typical of a grad student.
At 11:10 while I was sitting in class, I suddenly got a little single tone ringing in my right ear. Over the next 10 seconds, it was as if a wave rolled over my ear and killed it. In that 10 second span, I lost 100% of my hearing in that ear, and the noises got VERY loud and included 3 or 4 different tones simultaneously. I also became a little dizzy. The dizziness became worse all day and I eventually lost 100% of my balance on the right side, too.
My right inner ear just “up and died” that day. So, I suddenly got all 3 problems—deafness, tinnitus, and balance loss.
As the otologist who treated me said, I was the “classic case” of Sudden Hearing Loss Syndrome—the sudden death of the inner ear for no apparent reason—and for which there is no proven treatment. In my case, we suspect that an otherwise asymptomatic virus wiped it out.
Over the next year or so, the tinnitus and the balance problems improved a little, but my hearing is still a100% loss. Fortunately, my left ear remained normal.
The sudden loss of hearing in one ear was the easiest thing for me to adapt to. The balance loss and the tinnitus were tougher. Fortunately I had a great otologist whom I trusted. She advised me to figure out (through trial and error) which foods and activities made my tinnitus worse and then make my lifestyle decisions accordingly. She also emphasized being tough and simply not giving in to the temptation to let it make me an invalid.
I discovered that caffeine is a huge “no no” for me—but that’s the only food that I avoid because of my tinnitus. Stress, sound, and wind are the other big stimulators. For example, after a good night’s sleep, I will wake up with very little tinnitus (maybe a level 2 out of 10). Then I get up and go to the bathroom, and when I flush the toilet—ZING!—the tinnitus “turns on” and jump up to a 5 or 6. It’s at its worst after I have been outside on a windy day. I’m not sure why that is, but the wind increases my tinnitus dramatically.
Over the years, I have coped well by learning how to focus my attention on what I want to hear while simultaneously not focusing on the tinnitus I don’t want to hear. I still “hear” it. I just accept it as background noise, and live life with a permanent sound track. It’s kind of like living in a busy restaurant—in which there is always background noise that is sometimes very loud—but I choose to focus on my companions and my food, not on the background racket.
I decided to simply accept the noise as a part of my way of experiencing the world and got used to it—though I do try to avoid things that stimulate it, and I use relaxation techniques to try to lower it a bit when it gets really loud.
I have more trouble whenever I don’t get enough sleep. I also limit my use of NSAIDs as they dramatically increase my tinnitus. In addition, as soon as I think about my tinnitus, it increases noticeably.
“Audrey’s” story reveals two more great coping strategies where tinnitus is concerned. First, notice that she learned to accept her tinnitus—not fight it. She, as much as is humanly possible, put it out of her mind. As a result, her limbic (emotional) system didn’t “flag” her tinnitus and make it even worse. Dwelling on your tinnitus almost always makes it worse, so follow “Audrey’s” example.
Second, she learned which lifestyle changes affected her tinnitus. Thus she could prevent her tinnitus from “taking over” by avoiding those things—such as caffeine and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for two. She also learned that stress was a big factor (and is with many people with tinnitus), so by limiting her stress, she also effectively was able to control her tinnitus to some degree.