Tinnitus: When There’s Humming in Your Head and It Won’t Go Away

When Robert Plant sang: “Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,” he could have been singing about tinnitus, a common problem, that is even more prevalent among musicians. About 50 million people in the US suffer from tinnitus, but it is estimated that less than one-third seek treatment.

Put simply, tinnitus is the perception of sound in the ears or head where no external source is present. Commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” people describe it as a hissing, buzzing, roaring, or chirping sound. Some musicians have also reported “musical hallucination,” hearing phantom music in their ears that cannot be attributed to an outside source.

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Huw Cooper, consultant audiologist at University Hospital’s Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, says this type of tinnitus often goes unreported. “This is because people are familiar with tinnitus as banging or ringing, but when they hear music, they don’t think of tinnitus. If someone is deaf or loses their hearing, the part of the brain that processes sound signals is deprived of stimulation. In the absence of sound, the brain fills in the gaps, as it were, by tuning to musical memory for stimulation,” she says.

There can be a number of causes for tinnitus, but exposure to excessively loud sounds is one of the most common, especially when it comes to tinnitus in musicians. Prominent musicians who suffer from tinnitus include Will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas, Pete Townshend, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and Ryan Adams, who also suffers from the more severe Meniere’s Disease, which includes episodes of vertigo.

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Remember, the hearing risk to musicians is related to the volume and relative sound exposure. Any kind of music—classical, jazz, rock, Latin—can be too loud. In general, noise exposure at or below 85 decibels (dB) is considered safe, meaning it would be unlikely to do damage over an eight-hour exposure. For every three decibels above 85 dB, your allowable exposure time is cut in half. (For example, the allowable exposure time at 88 dB is four hours, 91 dB is two hours, etc.) Frequently, volumes at gigs can be up to 130 dB, which is safe for less than one second.

To avoid potential hearing loss and noise-induced tinnitus, the American Tinnitus Association offers these tips: limit the intensity of the noise by not standing directly near its source; wear earplugs when you’re around sounds of 85 dB and above; and periodically step outside (or away from loud noise) to give your ears a break. Look for musicians’ earplugs that attenuate sound, allowing you to more accurately assess sound than with standard earplugs.

If you think you may already be suffering from tinnitus, contact an audiologist, otologist, or otolaryngologist for an examination as soon as possible to determine if there is a treatable medical condition causing your tinnitus. Keep in mind that natural tinnitus reduction can occur at any time. Also, certain medications, along with caffeine, nicotine, and quinine can exacerbate the problem.

Do not panic and create negative forecasts for your treatment. Aside from your doctor’s suggestions, be involved in your own recovery. Keep track of possible triggers for your tinnitus. This can include everything from diet
to stress.

There are a number of treatments available. A healthcare provider Can help you determine what may work for you. Here are some possible options:

  1. Alternative medicine: Some people have experienced relief by using minerals like magnesium or zinc, herbal preparations like biloba, and other homeopathic remedies like acupuncture and hypnosis. However, there is no conclusive data to support these claims.
  2. Amplification: Some people have experienced relief wearing hearing aids because they bring back the ambient sounds that naturally cover the tinnitus.
  3. Biofeedback: This relaxation technique teaches people to control autonomic body functions (pulse, muscle tension, etc.), thereby helping them manage their reaction to stress.
  4. Cochlear implants/electrical stimulation: Electrical stimulation in the ear can stop tinnitus briefly.
  5. Cognitive therapy: This counseling based therapy treats a person’s emotional reaction to tinnitus, rather than tinnitus itself. It works by helping to identify negative behaviors and thought patterns. It is most effective when coupled with other tinnitus treatments.
  6. Drug therapy: Many drugs (anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, antihistamines, anticonvulsants, and anesthetics) have been researched and used to relieve tinnitus, but there are none specifically for tinnitus.
  7. Sound therapy: This strategy uses sound to completely or partially cover the tinnitus, sometimes referred to as masking. It is often combined with cognitive therapy.
  8. TMJ treatment: Tinnitus can be caused by a dysfunction of the jaw joint (TMJ), so sometimes dental treatment or bite alignment that relieves TMJ pain also relieves tinnitus.

Don’t give up if the first treatment does not work instantly. Sign onto the American Tinnitus Association website (ATA.org) to find out all you can about tinnitus and to gain the support of others suffering

Cherie Yurco is a former editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for over 20 years. She’s written about topics from travel to business, in Asia, Europe, and the US. When she settled near Syracuse, she rediscovered her passion for photography. She especially likes photographing musicians caught lost in their music. Cherie also enjoys exploring, photographing, and writing about music-related destinations around the country. Visit her blog at http://musicalcities.com.

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2 comments

I had my first signs of tinnitus in the summer of 2014. My band spent too much time rehearsing at high volumes (preparing for a mini summer tour) when I first noticed that the ringing wasn’t going away. I still have the ringing in my right ear. I really only notice it if I think about it. I also switched to the uncool earplugs for high volume practices / gigs, they seem to go with my progressive lens glasses 🙂

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