'Tinnitus freaked me out - I heard sinister sounds'

By Philippa Roxby
Health reporter, BBC News

image captionAndrew has taken up Tai Chi to help him relax, which also helps reduce his tinnitus

Andrew Goodwin's definition of his tinnitus is frank.

"It's a noise I can't identify which freaks me out."

He first began to hear a weird, piercing noise in his ears aged 31. On the same day in 2002, Andrew became profoundly deaf.

It was a terrifying and lonely time for him. Eighteen months later he discovered hearing aids which were powerful enough to help him hear again, but the tinnitus remained.

The noise he hears, but which no one else can, takes on a different character depending on how Andrew is feeling.

"When I am stressed it sounds like wind rushing through the trees. But at night after a long day it can be sinister. It sounds like there are voices, whispering..."

"Initially I didn't know what it was or where it was coming from. I thought I was going mad," he says.

Five million people in the UK are thought to live with tinnitus, but not all suffer from hearing loss as well.

The British Tinnitus Association says that about 10% of the UK adult population have mild tinnitus all the time and, in up to 1% of adults, this may affect their quality of life.

Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the absence of any actual, corresponding external sound and it can occur at any age - even in quite young children.

Although the precise cause of tinnitus is still not fully understood, experts say there are certain things which should be avoided.

David Baguley, consultant clinical scientist at Cambridge University Hospitals and vice chairman of the British Tinnitus Association, urges care around loud music.

"Intense sound can cause changes to the hearing system and can then lead to tinnitus. Loud music is fun but we must be careful too."

The ear is an extremely sensitive organ which has to deal with a massive range of sound levels - from a whisper at 30 decibels to a busy bar at 80-90 dB and a noisy club at 100 dB or more.

This sort of noise level is thought to be "safe" for fewer than 30 minutes.

Conrad Jarvis was listening to music two years ago when he suddenly heard a "crackling" noise in his left ear.

He initially put it down to the new headphones he was wearing before he realised there had been a permanent change in his hearing.

At first he did not notice the tinnitus.

image captionConrad's hearing aid has helped him cope with tinnitus and continue working as a DJ

"It just came on... this high-pitched sound. It was constantly there, sometimes it changed in pitch. It did drive me crazy," he says.

As a DJ who played everything from soul to R&B and house music, often at high volumes, Conrad thought his music career was finished.

But he was persuaded to have an operation and then use a hearing aid, which is now the only thing that quietens the tinnitus.

"After lots of hearing tests I realised my ear drum was damaged - so I just knew that was it for the rest of my life."

He was very reluctant to wear a big, pink hearing aid - particularly as he is of Caribbean descent - but he managed to get a small, brown digital hearing aid which most of his friends mistake for a blue tooth device.

"I've got back my sense of balance on my left-hand side and the hearing aid has reduced the tinnitus dramatically," Conrad says.

There are various treatments available which can help people deal with tinnitus. These include hearing aids, relaxation techniques to try to reduce anxiety levels and a bedside sound generator which produces the sound of rain, the ocean or birds to help induce sleep.

"For those seriously affected by tinnitus, psychological therapy in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy can be tried," Dr Baguley says.

Andrew Goodwin took up the relaxation technique Tai Chi to help him deal with his tinnitus, which he found very successful.

"The breathing exercises helped me relax and that calmed down the tinnitus," he says.

Stress and anxiety can also affect tinnitus levels, as Andrew testifies.

"If I get stressed, my tinnitus gets worse. After a long, tiring day, tinnitus is my way of telling me to slow down."

Current research on tinnitus is focusing on drugs which could have affect the intensity of the tinnitus, and on the use of filtered music to reduce the sound of the tinnitus.

Research is also being carried out into how the activity of the brain can be influenced using magnetism or electrical stimulation. This research is at a more experimental stage, says Dr Baguley.

Andrew's experience led him to become information and outreach advisor for Deafness Research UK. His job is to tour the country talking to people about how to look after their hearing and advising them on how to cope with hearing loss and tinnitus.

His advice on tinnitus is simple: "Talk to someone about it. There is help. You can't cure it but you can make it manageable."

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