Sleepless in Tinnitus

How to handle tinnitus.

Tinnitus: Tinnitus is hearing ringing, buzzing, or other sounds without an external cause. Patients may experience tinnitus in one or both ears or in the head.

Imagine that you are sleeping in on a weekend morning, and you wake up just enough to realize that you don’t have to get out of bed for anything. Slowly, grinning, you drift off, back to sleep with the peace of knowing that there is nothing urgent to get done and it is quiet. Gradually, as you drift, you notice that a low, constant hum has invaded your gift of slumber. You wake up a little more. This noise isn’t part of your dream. You wake up all the way to realize that it is a lawn mower running outside your window, but far enough away that it is creating an irritating “droning” disturbance. You sit up and look at the clock…7:30 in the morning. You know you won’t be able to get back to sleep. One may curse the rudeness of their neighbor for mowing their lawn so early, but few of us would run out in our pajamas to correct that rudeness. Everyone has a right to mow their lawn. Few of us would complain about our frustration to others because it would just make us look like a whiner. So, we just get up and get started with our day.

We cope.

That is tinnitus…

Most of the time, tinnitus is a subjective struggle that only the sufferer can hear. There isn’t trauma, or an obvious deformity for the outside world to see and sympathize with, but only what the person with tinnitus hears. So, they cope alone with their ringing, or whooshing, and learn how to sleep, and live, and work…never living with quality, but always with perseverance. None of us like people talking when we are watching a great movie, even if that talking is in a low whisper. “Shhhhh,” we say. If the talking persists, it can ruin the entertainment experience for us, and a frustration in which we all can relate. Those with tinnitus find ways to hush their tinnitus and reduce that frustration by sleeping with a fan on, or playing music. Learning to sleep with noise on the outside seems to reduce the noise on the inside, but family dynamics can be a whole other challenge because of these coping mechanisms. Spouses that hear only silence usually want quiet when they are trying to sleep. Take heart family members, there is good news and solutions to move toward quality living.

Recent research is showing that tinnitus is a response in the auditory cortex of the brain, due to lack of ambient sound (“The New Yorker,” Feb. 2009). Long exposure to loud noise, or head or neck trauma can create a hearing loss. The brain says, “There should be more noise.” And so, it creates the sound to fill in that void. It is what our bodies do to interpret our realities. If one would suffer a leg being cut off, our nervous system creates a ‘phantom limb pain’ even though the leg is missing. Our brain fills in the hearing loss with sound, and really doesn’t care if one is losing sleep. We do.

Technology is providing plausible solutions to tinnitus, and over the past year we are honored to be part of some great successes. It has to be evidence-based treatment though, and that starts with proper testing. Proper testing requires proper equipment. We supply that at Family Hearing and Balance Center. Proper treatment requires extensive history interviews that ask the tough questions. How are you sleeping? How much does your tinnitus bothers you? Is it affecting your moods? These take time and excellent listening skills. We promise you both.

In the end, one needs access to proven treatments. If there is hearing loss, a hearing aid device that will assist with hearing, but also provide musical therapy to reduce their tinnitus. If there isn’t a hearing loss, accessing technology that only provides musical therapy and that will reduce the tinnitus. Take heart, there are possibilities, and all one has to do is be willing to take the step. Coping is a noble thing, but why should one have a noble headache when there are headache pills in the medicine cabinet? We would encourage you to find solutions because they exist, and we want you to always be able to sleep in on those wonderful, quiet weekend mornings. That is quality living.