This week the British Tinnitus Association aims to raise awareness of a condition that affects one in ten people across the UK – and of which musicians, DJs, and music fans are particularly at risk.
My ears have always been iffy. Gigs seem to affect me more than they do my friends. Particularly loud shows disorientate me, producing the odd sensation that I am stuck behind a thick sheet of glass, or wandering around like Travolta in his Plastic Bubble.
Until about a year ago, after virtually every show I would hear that familiar ringing – two frequencies, one slightly higher than the other, one in each ear. It would normally last 24 hours at most. Then one day, I’m not exactly sure when, it just didn’t stop. Now, tinnitus is something that I live with, rather than something that comes to visit.
My tinnitus isn’t particularly debilitating. It’s only really a problem in total silence, making it occasionally difficult to sleep. Luckily I live in the middle of a block of flats, in the middle of a four-block estate, in the middle of the East End. Silence doesn’t happen that frequently.
Tinnitus is one of the UK’s most common medical complaints – and yet it is also one of the most misunderstood. Around 10 per cent of the population suffers from the condition, which can manifest in countless ways. Everyone’s tinnitus is different. Some people hear a buzz, others the noise of waves. Others still hear bird song, or even music – auditory hallucinations which science is still yet to adequately explain.
There is also a significant range of potential causes. While exposure to loud noise is the most commonly cited, for many people the roots of the condition lie in existing complaints like stress, high blood pressure, or depression.
Tinnitus Awareness Week is dedicated to building understanding of the condition amongst GPs – many of whom lack the training to deal appropriately with tinnitus care. According to a new study by the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), there are some 750,000 tinnitus consultations in England every year. The BTA identified inconsistencies in assessment techniques and referral practices amongst GPs, suggesting that the care tinnitus sufferers receive can vary dramatically – despite the existence of clinical best practice guidelines. Following consultations, a third of patients are unsatisfied with their GP’s response – and just 37 per cent are referred for further assistance.
David Stockdale, CEO of the British Tinnitus Association, said: “The BTA has long suspected that tinnitus management offered by GPs throughout the UK varies significantly. This study confirms this and has also identified that, shockingly, a large proportion of people who experience tinnitus are not given information about tinnitus management.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that GPs’ treatment of musicians and DJs is particularly poor. Doctors reportedly often tell patients that they will have to change their lifestyle – which, in many cases, means changing profession, and leaving behind the thing that you love.
In reality, though, tinnitus can be managed and mitigated such that patients can continue to enjoy and make music. Many of the world’s most successful artists suffer from tinnitus or related conditions. Thom Yorke, Neil Young, and Mike Patton are amongst the countless musicians who have developed strategies that enable them to cope with tinnitus, without having to turn their backs on music.
This year the BTA is focusing its efforts on building awareness of the condition amongst primary care professionals, and encouraging cooperation with specialist audiologists. But, while improving care is a key priority, it is also important to raise awareness of tinnitus and other audiological conditions amongst those who suffer from them, and those who are particularly at risk. Musicians and music lovers need to take seriously the risk of tinnitus – but we also need to develop better strategies for coping with the condition, and for ensuring that tinnitus doesn’t prevent us doing what we love.
Tinnitus tips from the British Tinnitus Association
The BTA recommends that musicians, DJs, and concertgoers should use ear plugs. Personal experience suggests that you need to invest in good quality, flat response, fitted plugs if you are to reduce the risk to your ears while still maintaining a realistic listening experience. ACS are one of the largest providers of musicians’ plugs. You should speak to a qualified audiologist to make sure you end up with the right product.
The BTA has also compiled some tips for those who have already developed tinnitus, which you can read below. I find troubling their suggestion that homeopathy might be a reasonable response – but potential quackery aside, their recommendations seem useful. More information is available on the BTA website.
- Exercise. Exercise regularly to boost “feel-good” endorphins, to gain a sense of well-being and lower stress levels.
- Relax. It is well documented that stress exacerbates the experience of tinnitus so try to relax as much as possible. Many people try acupuncture, homeopathy and reflexology to help manage stress levels, and in turn improve their experience of tinnitus.
- Use music. Listening to music can help as it distracts from the tinnitus noises, but be careful to avoid prolonged exposure to high-volume levels which can make tinnitus worse.
- Consider your diet. Take steps to improve your health through diet so that you are healthier and fitter, which can make you feel better when you experience tinnitus. Stick to soft drinks and herbal teas, and keep well hydrated
- Investigate products. The BTA sells a range of products which can help. These include sound therapy systems; mood lights; pillow speakers; and CDs – e.g. relaxation and beach sounds
- Get expert help. The BTA is a world leader in tinnitus support. Use the BTA’s freephone helpline (0800 018 0527) and website. Also visit the BTA’s online forums for further advice, support and help from other people who experience the condition
- Join a support group. Join a tinnitus support group in your area or start one if there is not an existing group in your locality. Visit www.tinnitus.org.uk/directory to locate the nearest one to you, and for a free copy of the BTA’s ‘Together’ magazine which advises on setting up a support group
- Talk to family and friends. Make sure your family and friends understand tinnitus. Point them in the direction of the BTA’s website. The more they know, the more they will be able to help you.