After hours of loud music at band rehearsal, you may experience a ringing in your ear or a buzzing noise. This auditory experience is tinnitus, and each year about 25 million Americans report regularly having the symptom. If you’re lucky, the ringing sound disappears after a while, but more and more musicians in my environment suffer from persistent tinnitus.
We as musicians are more likely to develop tinnitus because of our over-exposure to sound. The bad news is there is no cure for tinnitus yet, that’s why this article concentrates on what you can do to prevent tinnitus, and what you can do to find some relief in case you have persistent tinnitus.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and this article is an overview of what is commonly known about tinnitus. If you have persistent tinnitus, the first thing you should do is speak with a medical professional.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing sounds, when no external sound is present.
Tinnitus is not a disease but rather a physical condition that is indicative of problems with an individual’s auditory system. It simply means that an individual perceives a sound that is not coming from an external source. Tinnitus, then, does not carry any symptoms but is itself a symptom.
The word ‘Tinnitus’ stems from the Latin word ‘tinnire’ which is roughly translated as ‘to ring’. This irritating ringing in the ear could be a result of something as small as earwax blockage or as serious as a brain tumor, but in our case as musicians, it’s more likely caused by noise-induced hearing loss.
The auditory system has three parts:
- The part of the brain that processes sound.
- The nerves that connect the brain and inner ear.
- The ear itself.
Any damage, blockage, or irregularity in any part of the auditory system can result in problematic high-pitched ringing sounds. Although you hear tinnitus in your ears, its source is really in the neural circuits that are responsible for ‘transporting’ sounds from your ear to your brain.
What Does Tinnitus Sound Like?
Each individual experiences tinnitus differently because there are numerous different causes that invoke the persistent sounds.
Most people describe tinnitus as a loud ringing in the ears, others describe the experience as a bell dinging in their head or as a buzzing, humming, clicking, hissing, or even roaring.
Tinnitus can range from high-pitched to low-pitched and may be heard loudly or dull and softly. You may hear the ringing in one ear or both and the sound can be brief or constant.
Causes of Tinnitus
This symptom should tell you that something is awry with your hearing system. The list of things that could go wrong with an individual’s auditory system is long, so the cause of the ringing may not be obvious at first.
In our case as musicians, tinnitus is usually noise-induced, but it can also be age-related and is the first sign of hearing loss.
Some of the most common causes are:
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
Excessive or prolonged exposure to loud noise is one of the most common causes of tinnitus. Excessive exposure to noise can cause damage to the hairs in your inner ear that vibrate and register sounds, and this symptom is a warning. Concerts, band rehearsals, headphones, and even machinery like lawn mowers can reach a level that will damage these hairs.
If you notice tinnitus after being exposed to loud noise, then make sure to lessen your exposure to the noise to prevent future hearing damage.
Age-Related Hearing Loss
Tinnitus can also be a symptom of age-related hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss is called presbycusis and is caused by genetics, noise exposure and other changes related to aging. It affects 1 out of 3 people over 65, and 1 out of 2 over the age of 75.
Blockage in Ear Canal
An ear or sinus infection can cause excess mucus or fluid in your ear canal or in the Eustachian tube. One of the jobs of the Eustachian tube is to drain mucus from the inner ear, but in case of an infection, there can be too much mucus to drain.
Excessive earwax can also cause a blockage in your ears. The most common cause of an earwax blockage is the use of Q-tips. It is better if you refrain from cleaning your ears with cotton swabs to prevent earwax from pushing against your eardrum. Excessive use of headphones can also cause wax buildup.
If you have a feeling of fullness in your ear(s), get them checked by a doctor.
High blood pressure can cause tinnitus in some cases. If the ringing in your ear is related to blood pressure, then it is important to eat a proper diet and exercise regularly.
Side-Effect of Medication
The list of drugs that can cause tinnitus is long. Drugs that can cause hearing loss are called ototoxic medication and their effects can be temporary or permanent, and can start when you begin taking the drugs or when you stop taking them.
Here’s a sample list of drugs that are reported to cause damage to your ears:
- Pain killers such as Aspirin, Ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin for example) and naproxen (Aleve for example).
- Some antidepressants.
- Some antibiotics.
- Some blood pressure drugs.
- Some heart medicines.
- Some cancer medicines.
If you take some kind of medicine and experience tinnitus, talk to your doctor about it.
Diseases and Disorders
Some diseases and disorders such as multiple sclerosis, thyroid disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, head injury, whiplash, migraine, depression,… can cause tinnitus as well.
There is no cure for tinnitus.
But, there are be methods you can employ to lessen the severity of your symptoms depending on the root cause of your tinnitus.
In some cases, your doctor may be able to identify exactly what is causing the ringing and provide treatment. If you have a buildup of middle ear fluid that is causing tinnitus, for example, the doctor can eliminate your symptoms by reducing the ear fluid.
In cases where the underlying cause is undetermined, a doctor can only suggest methods to help cope with or suppress the sound.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
This method employs a unique combination of psychological therapy and sound therapy.
This technique is performed under the supervision of an experienced therapist. It involves removing the negative deterministic view many have on their tinnitus and abandoning the stereotype that nothing can be done to improve your quality of life.
The other cornerstone of this method involves sound therapy and the absence of silence. The sounds used in this therapy do not intend to mask the ringing completely but rather give your brain another noise to focus on.
The final part of the therapy is to try to identify and retrain the conditioned emotional and physical reflex response to your tinnitus. The overall goal of this therapy is not to cure the ringing ears but to teach an individual to have less of a negative reaction to the sounds and have longer periods of awareness of the ringing.
Masking Devices: White Noise Machines or Sleep Machines
The masking devices used in sound therapy are also available as a consumer product. White noise machines for example produce subtle sounds that partially mask your perception of tinnitus. They also train your brain to classify tinnitus as an unimportant sound that should be ignored. Here is an example.
The Finger Drumming Technique
Learning this simple trick can provide temporary relief from the constant ringing quickly and naturally.
The technique is very simple:
- Place the palms of your hands over your ears so that your fingers are pointing toward one another. Make sure that your middle fingers rest at the base of the skull.
- Put your index fingers atop the middle ones and snap them down so that they hit the base of the skull gently. You should be able to hear a loud, drum-like sound.
- Keep repeating this process until you find relief.
Here’s a video that shows you the technique:
If a doctor has found your tinnitus to be associated with hearing loss, then a fitted hearing aid may help you hear more clearly. More clearly understanding external sounds can help distract your mind from the tinnitus and possibly even eliminate it all together. It is important to recognize that hearing aids will not be useful and may even cause more damage if the root issue is not age-related hearing loss.
Get Your Blood Work Done
In some cases, tinnitus can be the result of a deficiency, such as a vitamin B12 or zinc deficiency. Talk to your doctor if you have tinnitus and get your blood checked to rule out deficiencies.
Some companies advertise the success of dietary supplements like ginkgo biloba, flavonoids, Quietus and melatonin in treating tinnitus. Current research has shown that these supplements do not significantly reduce tinnitus. While some of these supplements might have benefits for your overall health, there are no miracle cures to overcome tinnitus.
Avoid Over-Exposure to Loud Noise
Anything you can do to limit your exposure to excessive noise will help prevent you from damaging your sensory hairs. While rehearsing or practicing, turn down your amp’s volume or wear earplugs when the sound is too loud.
Limit the Use of Headphones
Headphones and especially ear buds are bad for your ears. If you have to use headphones, during a recording for example, make sure you limit the volume.
Wear earplugs anywhere you expect sudden or loud sounds such as band rehearsals, concerts, parties, sporting events, and working with machinery.
You can also have custom earplugs molded for maximum comfort.
Famous Musicians Diagnosed With Persistent Tinnitus
Musicians are much more likely to suffer this symptom because they often expose themselves to loud music for too long. Some artists, like Phil Collins and George Martin, were forced to retire because of their hearing loss.
Some artists who have confirmed ringing in their ears include:
- Charlie Haden: “Over the years I have learned to adjust my life to this problem and accepted these ear problems as part of my being. In other words, I tell myself that I’ve been this way since I was born. This helps me to reduce the stress and frustration of this condition. I wear earplugs when I play that cut out 32 db’s, as well as using Plexiglas baffles.”
- Al Di Meola: “I do have tinnitus. That’s why i don’t play electric anymore.”
- Jeff Beck: “Yes, it’s in my left ear. It’s excruciating… I mean, it’s the worst thing ’cause it’s not… It never… It does go away – it’s not true to say that it doesn’t but, uh… It doesn’t… The doctors say it won’t… It isn’t actually going away – you’ve just gotta suppress… They try to come to terms with what it actually… Why some people fear it – that’s the psychology behind it. They know it’s there but why is it such a horrible sound? Well, you can say why is a guy scratching at a window with his nails such a horrible sound – I couldn’t put up with that! This is worse!”
- Beethoven: he was driven mad by “rushing and roaring sounds” in his head.
- Neil Young
- Eric Clapton
- George Martin
- Phil Collins
- Paul Simon
- Eric Clapton
It is wise to take the advice of these artists and not expose your ears to music that is too loud. Older musicians were not as informed about noise-induced tinnitus, and it is possible to be a successful musician without sacrificing your hearing to do so. Be sure to take the preventative measures that are necessary to protect your hearing and avoid tinnitus.
Do you suffer from persistent tinnitus? Let us know in the comments below…