Waiting to Fall Asleep: My Life with Chronic Tinnitus

The purpose of this essay is to let people know about a very common condition that millions of people have to varying degrees. The condition is called Tinnitus.

Tinnitus is an audiological and neurological condition where the person hears noise or ringing in the ears. It is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. The sounds include buzzing, sirens, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public — over 45 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases according to the 2011 – 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Mine is chronic and burdensome and at times, debilitating.

Many people have this condition and can accept it into their lives. The sound is annoying but when the sound is low (pitch and volume) you can deal with it easily enough. For some it’s “acute” meaning it is temporary. It may be acute, chronic, tonal or pulsatile, constant or irregular. And Tinnitus can be a symptom of a medical condition, so if your health becomes better there is a good chance it will go away. If it turns out to be chronic like mine did, managing the sounds is more difficult.

There is a scene in Sixth Sense, a 1999 supernatural film starring Bruce Willis, and he plays a child psychologist. He asks Haley Joel Osment, the actor and boy who is thought to be disturbed, how often does he see dead people. His response was “all the time.”

People have asked me how often I hear noises in my brain. I say as well, “all the time.”

University of Illinois speech and hearing science professor Fatima Husain and her colleagues found that tinnitus is associated with emotional processing in a different part of the brain than in those without the condition. Activity in the amygdala, a brain region associated with emotional processing, was lower in the tinnitus and hearing-loss patients than in people with normal hearing. Tinnitus patients also showed more activity than normal-hearing people in two other brain regions associated with emotion, the parahippocampus and the insula.

People with chronic and also those with moderate Tinnitus may feel that their life is becoming more burdensome for themselves and others. Their social life, work life, family time can be affected to various degrees. They may develop depression, anxiety, mood swings, sleep disturbances, poor concentration, frustration and pain. And some people develop hyperacusis (over-sensitivity to certain sounds)

This is not an essay to explain all the scientific reasons why a person develops Tinnitus. You can go to the American Tinnitus Association at (www.ata.org) to learn and even hear the sounds of Tinnitus. If you live with someone who has Tinnitus it is a good idea. What I want to do here is to give you a basic understanding so you can be helpful to a person with Tinnitus, particularly to those whose condition is chronic and persistent. And I want people, particularly young people to understand that protecting your ears is important. You can still go to concerts and hear your favorite bands but wear some protection. The amount of noise exposure will affect you at some point. Musicians are vulnerable to developing Tinnitus. If you work in a loud environment you need to protect your ears. People with PTSD and those with mental health issues are vulnerable to experiencing bothersome Tinnitus because mental health issues can make every day living challenging. Those with hearing loss and senior citizen are vulnerable to developing Tinnitus. And Tinnitus is the leading service-related disability among U.S. veterans.

The good news is that scientists are now taking this condition more seriously. There are drug therapies and non-drug therapies being developed. I am estimating that perhaps in five years those with acute Tinnitus or those with Tinnitus less than 3-6 months in duration may have the best chance of a cure. But one cure could spur additional cures for those with chronic Tinnitus. And the ATA has suggestions for managing your Tinnitus. There are online support groups for those who need support. So there is hope that one day people affected by Tinnitus will be able to sleep more easily (I use a sound pillow with speakers and an MP3 player) and silence will again be available to us. Silence is golden for us.

Thank you for listening.

Additional Resources:

American Tinnitus Association: www.ata.org
Living with Tinnitus & Hearing Loss Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/TinnituSupport/
Sound Pillow Sleep System https://www.soundpillow.com/
Gift From Within – PTDS Resources www.giftfromwithin.org
The Hearing Journal: https://journals.lww.com/thehearingjournal/pages/default.aspx
The Hyperacusis Network: https://hyperacusis.net/