Imagine wearing a pair of headphones that are playing the sound of a whistling kettle. Imagine wearing those headphones all day, and all night, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Horrific it might sound, but that’s what life was like for one Suffolk man, a victim of tinnitus.
“The noise in his ears was so loud, he told me he was surprised I couldn’t hear it,” says Karen Finch, a hearing aid audiologist whose company, The Hearing Care Centre, is marking Tinnitus Awareness Week next week with an exhibition in Ipswich town centre.
Although around 10% of the population is affected by tinnitus, and that adds up to more than a few thousand in Suffolk alone. It’s extremely difficult to provide medical help because the sound isn’t usually caused by anything physical or biological which can be cured, it comes from within the sufferer themselves.
It appears drugs are no help either: certainly there is not as yet, conventional or complementary medication that has been shown to ease tinnitus and it is thought that repeatedly trying unsuccessful therapies worsens tinnitus.
It was because he’d not been able to find relief that the man with the whistling kettle turned to The Hearing Care Centre. Fortunately they knew that in a large number of cases, tinnitus sufferers, who are often elderly, also have hearing loss which exacerbates the situation.
“We tested his hearing and discovered he did have a significant hearing loss,” says Karen, “and fitted him with hearing aids. I won’t say it was a miracle cure, because it wasn’t, but he told us it had changed his life. Now everyday sounds he hadn’t been able to hear because of the noises in his ears, were clearly audible, and they in turn, suppressed the aggravation caused by the tinnitus."
Karen added: “I cannot emphasise how much difference identifying the hearing loss made to this man. At his first follow up appointment he said he had been to a restaurant and heard the conversation clearly– something he hadn’t heard clearly for years.”
She explained that unresolved tinnitus is more than just a noise: it can make communication difficult for the sufferer and the unrelenting sounds can cause stress which in turn makes the condition worse.
“It really is like a spiral; the condition causes stress and stress makes the condition worse,” she says.
Interestingly, experts believe that even those without significant hearing loss may find hearing aids are helpful. Straining to listen causes increased hearing sensitivity and this can allow tinnitus to emerge or, if present already, to worsen. Correcting even relatively mild hearing loss reduces this central auditory gain and thereby reduces the level of the tinnitus. Hearing aids are said to be useful even if the hearing loss is not at a point that aids would normally be considered.
Karen and her team of hearing aid audiologists work from a total of 13 centres in Suffolk – from Hadleigh to Halesworth, Felixstowe to Framlingham – and during Tinnitus Awareness Week will be offering free hearing screening to try and identify those who have hearing loss as well as tinnitus.
Staff will be manning an exhibition in the Buttermarket shopping centre, Ipswich on Tuesday February 9th (10am – 3pm) where trained tinnitus lay-counsellors will be on hand to offer information, advice and support.
They will be supported by members of the Suffolk Tinnitus Support Group and Ipswich Counselling Services and as well as being able to collect free tinnitus information packs, visitors to the exhibition can learn more about the condition, about stress and the art of relaxation and most importantly finding out about treatments that are available to help.
The Awareness Week is organised by the independent charity the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), which is hoping to reach thousands of people of all ages across the country through its campaign which as well as focusing on the effects of stress on tinnitus, will also highlight the risks to hearing from exposure to loud music without hearing protection.
By raising awareness of these two important issues the BTA aims to encourage better hearing health and to highlight ways in which tinnitus may be prevented.