Ringing, whistling, humming, buzzing – we often talk about the physical side of the hearing condition tinnitus, but it can take its toll on our wellbeing, too. Here, Emmie Harrison-West reflects on her own story, and explores the management tools that work for her and others
I remember hearing it for the first time, that ringing noise. It came to me in the dark, when I was in my late teens. It sounded like the screeching, erratic tones of dial-up broadband. Or like someone keeping their finger pressed on the doorbell deep inside my head – and there was no way to stop it. It would come and go. Sometimes I’d hear a rush of high-pitched ringing throughout the day, but it was worse at night.
Until my early 20s, I was constantly anxious and on edge before bed. Sometimes, I dreaded going to sleep in case I had a flare-up. When it happened, I’d spend hours staring at the ceiling, wishing for it (whatever it was) to disappear again. I suffered for it during the day. Felt drained, emotional, and tearful.Stress only made it worse; it was a truly vicious cycle.
Turns out that noise, deep in my ears, was tinnitus, and I joined the one in eight adults in the UK who suffer from it.
“Tinnitus is the name for hearing noises in your ears or head that are not caused by an outside source,” Franki Oliver, audiology adviser at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) told me. “It’s often described as ‘ringing in the ears’, but some people describe it as hissing, humming, buzzing, or whooshing.”
“Imagine hearing an unwanted sound all day,” Carly Sygrove, coach and hearing loss blogger told me. “Perhaps it’s the high-pitched whirring of the fridge, or maybe it’s a noisy neighbour playing music throughout the day. Like these scenarios, tinnitus is an intrusive sound, and there’s no way of turning it off.”
Two years ago, aged 27, I was diagnosed with hearing loss and tinnitus, one of a reported 12 million deaf people in the UK. I realised my hearing wasn’t quite right when I couldn’t understand people who wore masks – it was only then that it dawned on me how much I relied on lip-reading.
“Many people wrongly assume that it is their tinnitus, rather than their hearing loss, that is causing hearing difficulties,” Nic Wray, communications manager at British Tinnitus Association told me. They added that the causes of tinnitus are still ‘not fully understood,’ but could be triggered by exposure to loud noise, ear infections, wax build-up,’ and even Covid-19, or long Covid.
At first, thinking it was a wax build-up, I sought help from an audiologist who soon diagnosed me with mild nerve deafness. It was genetic, but likely exacerbated by listening to loud music through ear buds, or going to loud concerts growing up.
According to Duncan Collet-Fenson, audiologist at Aston Hearing: “We can all experience temporary tinnitus when we spend the evening at a l