FORT WAYNE – It can be a high-pitched, continuous whine, as though there is a distant tea kettle whistling endlessly. Or it could be a muffled, clicking sound; or the low hum of an electric transformer; or simply continuous static.
Tinnitus is a ringing in the ears or a constant, involuntary sound within the head that affects 50 million Americans and an estimated 250 million people globally, according to the American Tinnitus Association.
And the sounds can range from subtle to shattering.
A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear cell damage, according to a Mayo Clinic report. Tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers ear cells to release an electrical signal through a nerve from your ear (auditory nerve) to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can leak random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus.
And what causes the damage?
The No. 1 reason for tinnitus is noise-induced hearing loss, says Ken Stewart, licensed audiologist and owner of the Hear Care clinic, which treats the hearing-impaired. You could have a teenager blow off a firecracker and could have (tinnitus) for the rest of his life. But its people in the military or factory workers or farmers – repeated exposure to loud noise – usually are the people we see with it.
Tinnitus is not a disease. However, it can be a symptom of Menieres disease, which is an inner ear disorder that may be caused by abnormal ear fluid pressure.
There are lots of things that could cause tinnitus: diseases of the ear, wax, hypertension, vascular issues, neurological issues like tumors. It can vary, Stewart says. Usually we see it more in adults than children because theyre more exposed to elements.
While it may not always lead to tinnitus, Stewart also quickly points out that one in five children between the ages of 12 and 18 have some kind of hearing loss, with loud music from individual music players often being the culprit.
The kids now, when theyre in their 60s, will probably have more compiled hearing loss than you and I may have, Stewart says. I know its increased in the last 15, 20 years. And theyre thinking its the iPods and the music and the car stereos and all that stuff.
Its not the sinister rock n roll or the rap tunes that go thumpa-thumpa into the night that are the sole causes of our youths declining hearing.
Headphones are the devil, says local singer/guitarist Kenny Taylor, who admits that he suffered from tinnitus, but its not as bad as it used to be.
Taylor, 52, still performs, but does so with earplugs.
Probably in my late 20s, I was starting to have a hard time hearing mid-range, like people talking, he says. I went to an ear guy, and he was like, Well, you just accelerated this by 10 years by all the music youve had to withstand every night. I was already trying to take care of my ears, so I kept using ear protection.
If you go to a really loud concert, you might want some foam earplugs. Standing in front of a large stack of amplifiers and getting your head blown off is great when youre 20, but you wont be able to hear anything by the time youre 25.
Enter Kevin Quandt, lead vocalist for the Fort Wayne-based Pink Floyd tribute band Pink Droyd.
I generally do experience a very, very slight, ever-present high-pitch tone in my ears, Quandt wrote in an email. This has been in my ears since I can remember – probably from a Metallica concert when I was young.
He punctuates with a Ha!
It doesnt have any effect on my playing and is only really noticeable when I am in a quiet environment. I know that, historically, droves of musicians have suffered with tinnitus.
Stewart says there is no cure, but there are ways to make tinnitus more bearable.
Seventy percent of hearing device wearers report some type of relief from their tinnitus, either total or partial. Usually its partial, Stewart says. Its just a masking element. When hearing devices can amplify and make you more aware of the external sounds, often times it will have such a great masking effect on internal sounds.