Tortured by tinnitus
The bell that always tolls
Many students get annoyed at or distracted by the din of hundreds of students typing away during an exam or in the UB; they focus better in silence. Up until a year ago, Shanne felt the same way. But these days, the clacking of keys comes as a relief because it masks the constant ringing in her hears. She suffers from tinnitus.
It started in September of 2017. ‘My ear had been sensitive for a while’, Shanne says. One fall evening, she went for a run in spite of her nasty cold, blasting music through her headphones. ‘The next morning I woke up with a ringing in my ear.’
She’s not sure what caused it. ‘Maybe it was the music in combination with my cold during the run.’ A visit to the GP didn’t tell her much.
Drown it out
The GP advised her to stay calm and not get too stressed. ‘But that’s difficult when even the sound of coffeemaker at work hurts your ears’, says Shanne. She was constantly stressed out; what if the ringing never stopped? ‘After much urging on my part, I was finally given antibiotics. The ringing diminished, but it’s still there.’
She now welcomes the sounds she used to find so annoying. She is currently studying in Madrid on an Erasmus scholarship; while other students can be overwhelmed by the constant buzz of the city, Shanne likes it. She doesn’t hear the ringing in her own head as much.
‘Drowning out the sound is the only “solution” to tinnitus’, says professor Tjeerd Andringa, a noise pollution expert. There is no medical solution to tinnitus; ‘it has to do with the hair cells in our ears, and those are so small that it’s difficult to study them. Our current skills and tools would only destroy them even more’, Andringa explains.
Cas, who has been suffering from a similar ringing in his ears for the past for four years, has seen a host of doctors and experts since his problem developed. He says their responses were less than compassionate. ‘Tinnitus isn’t a physical thing that doctors can cure, so they don’t really know what to do about it’, Cas explains. ‘Sometimes they would just wave it away: “Don’t be such a wuss. We can’t treat it so deal with it.” They offered me a support group with other people affected by the condition, but I didn’t want that.’
But the condition does take an emotional toll, he says. ‘You can’t turn the ringing off.’ He’s noticed that the ringing has become worse over time. ‘It’s especially loud when I’m stressed.’
‘The ringing is permanent’, says Andringa. ‘You can try to be less affected by it by not paying it any mind: make sure you don’t put any store by it. But that’s really difficult. It does affect you, which can cause negative emotions which in turn means you’re always focused on whether or not you can hear the ringing.’
According to Andringa, the psychological effects of tinnitus should not be underestimated. ‘People can easily get depressed. Marriages have ended because one spouse didn’t understand how the other one was suffering.’
For Cas, the ringing in his ears was caused by the difference in air pressure on a plane. He got earplugs to deal with the issue. ‘But because the ringing was in only one ear, I would only wear the protection in just that ear so I could still hear people talking to me’, Cas says. He later found out he could also buy custom earplugs that filter sound, allowing a person to hear conversations better. But that discovery came only after the ringing had spread to his other ear.
These days, he never goes out without his earplugs in. ‘In fact, I go out much less than I used to’, says Cas. Even with his plugs in, the noise volume in clubs bothers him sometimes.
‘Eighty decibels can be enough to damage your hearing’, says business owner Erwin Koeneman. ‘In pubs, clubs, and at festivals, the volume often exceeds that level.’ When Koeneman got tinnitus himself years ago, he realised there was a lack of good hearing protection. He started the company Earsafety, where people can get customised earplugs based on the type of noise pollution they’re experiencing.
Many people notice a ringing in their ears after a night out on the town, which is a bad sign in and of itself. ‘If you have this often, there is a good chance you’ll have hearing problems later on in life’, says Andringa. ‘But you can also suffer hearing damage without the ringing. If you listen to loud music through headphones all day you probably won’t hear a ringing, but it’s still potentially damaging. It’s the combination of loud and long that does it. In other words, listening to somewhat loud music for a very long time is just as harmful listening to music at 105 decibels for a little while.’
According to Andringa, prevention is crucial since there’s no real treatment for Tinnitus. ‘But people don’t always think about the consequences when they’re living in the moment’, says Andringa. For now, prevention is up to people themselves, since the current rules in the hospitality industry are to counter noise pollution, not to protect the ears of partygoers. The music in establishments is often much too loud. So if you go out a lot, it might be wise to wear earplugs.
Marthe always has her earplugs with her. ‘The chemist sells earplugs with a container you can hang from your keys. That way you never forget them’, she says. Approximately eighteen months ago, Marthe suffered hearing damage by partying non-stop for two weeks during the Albertus anniversary. ‘I though the ringing would go away if I took it easy for a couple of days.’ But it didn’t go away. Now she always studies with music playing in the background. In the beginning, she had trouble falling asleep. ‘But I’m used to it now’, she says.
Both sufferers and experts emphasise how important it is to raise awareness of tinnitus. Whenever Shanne urges her friends to buy earplugs, they agree that she’s right. ‘But they often end up not buying them’, she says.
Ca thinks that as long as there are no rules in the hospitality industry regulating sound volume, clubs should at least install machines where people can buy earplugs. ‘Just put them next to the condom dispensers. And put up a poster with information.’