Emily Barker warns of the risk of Tinnitus among young people
I always thought tinnitus was for old people who’d been in the war. Or maybe retired metalheads who’d spent every weekend for the past twenty years raging. I’d never even heard of anyone in their twenties having to deal with it, let alone teenagers. But the biggest misconception I fell for was that tinnitus was a result of prolonged exposure to excessive noise. I had no idea a lifetime of damage could be done in one night.
“The biggest misconception I fell for was that tinnitus was a result of prolonged exposure to excessive noise. I had no idea a lifetime of damage could be done in one night
So, I guess I’ve set the stage for April 2014; I was nineteen and at a Pendulum/Chase & Status gig in Manchester. I had never had any trouble with nights out being too loud, never had any pain or discomfort from loud music, and tonight was no different. I mean, yeah, it was loud, it was Pendulum for Christ’s sake, and granted, my judgement was slightly impaired by my not being entirely sober, but I was far from properly wasted and the only way in which the volume was bothering me was by not being able to understand whether my friends wanted to go to the bar or outside for a smoke. Pretty standard, I thought.They played ‘Slam’ and ‘Tarantula’ and life was great. When we got back to the quiet of our hostel I noticed that my ears were ringing like crazy, and I remember laughing about it with my friends because they were having the same issue and we were unintentionally shouting at each other from across the room. I didn’t think much of it until the next morning, when I woke up and the ringing had barely subsided. I mentioned this to my friends and they said that that was strange, their ears were fine now.
But still, I didn’t worry about it too much, I went home and coped with the minor irritation, swearing to myself that next time I would be more careful. But it was a bit late for being careful, I found out a couple of months later from the ENT specialist at my local hospital. When the ringing had carried on for several weeks and I had started to notice a new sensitivity to certain noises that was causing some fairly intense pain, I went to see my GP, who referred me. And now I was being told, after extensive hearing tests, that yes, sorry, I had permanently damaged my hearing, and, well, that was it really. I probably qualified for NHS counselling to teach me coping techniques. The doctor seemed surprised when I wasn’t comforted by his assurance that this was really quite common; more and more people were being diagnosed with tinnitus all the time. I asked how many of them were nineteen, or under sixty-five, for that matter. He shrugged sheepishly and admitted not many.
Now, I hate a sob story as much as the next person, so I apologise, but it seemed like the best way to explain the risk, because over the last three years I have seen so many people do the exact same thing as I did. In some ways, this is the most frustrating thing; despite my occasional appearances at drum and bass nights, I actually partied shockingly little for a teenager and, in comparison to all my school friends who were living up the fresher life, exposed myself to far less noise. So why was I the one with inner ear damage all of a sudden? Why were other people at the same gig not even affected? I’ve never really had a satisfactory explanation for this, except that sensitivity to noise is thought to be partly hereditary, so it was theorised that I was just an “at risk” person. Not that there was any family history to warn me of this. It was just the doctor’s theory.
So for all you who are just as young and naïve and keen to have fun nights out as I was, here are some of the myths about tinnitus, debunked, and fun facts about what awaits you if you don’t protect your ears:
- Only old people get it – nope. I somehow thought that old people, with their sensitive little ears and hearing aids and all that, were the ones who developed tinnitus. But being hard of hearing and having inner ear damage are two completely different things. Young people with perfect hearing are at just as much risk of damaging their cochlea.
- You can’t get it from one night of clubbing – exhibit A [gestures to self]. This is still the hardest thing for me to accept; it’s difficult to understand how just a few hours that caused me no distress or pain at the time can have had such a permanent impact. But the hairs in your inner ear can be destroyed by mere seconds of noise if it’s loud enough, and they cannot regrow: ergo, no cure.
- Oh tinnitus? That ringing thing? Yeah, I have that too – [eye roll] You may have experienced the temporary tinnitus that is common after parties, clubbing etc., but here are some of the bonus symptoms that 99% of people don’t realise are part and parcel of permanent tinnitus:
- Ringing that does not stop. Sounds obvious, but I really mean does not stop. Ever. That means every time you try to read a book, browse the Internet in quiet, sleep, write, etc., your ringing is there with you. “Neutral noises” to cover the ringing, music or TV on in the background while I do these things, have become a necessity. (It’s Destiny’s Child right now, in case you were wondering).
- Ringing at multiple pitches (or not even ringing, but buzzing or humming). I happen to only hear ringing, but apparently there is a whole range of sounds the tinnitus can manifest as. A lot of people seem to think that you hear a constant, uniform noise, but for me, there are multiple “sets” of ringing at various pitches and at various places in my head/ears. Sometimes I hear one, sometimes three, sometimes they waver around and vary in pitch and volume.
- Sensitivity to everyday sounds, or Hyperacusis if we’re getting technical. Applause, doors or cupboards slamming, and things being dropped on hard floors are all sounds that I now find extremely painful, but it varies from person to person.
- Inability to process multiple sounds. Since damaging my ears, I find it almost impossible to follow conversations in a remotely noisy environment. The weirdest thing is, it’s not that I can’t hear what’s being said, I just cannot tune out background noise from, for example, other conversations or music (even on quietly), in order to make sense of it. This is probably the most agitating aspect of the whole thing; the frustration and confusion from the bombardment of noise, and simultaneous embarrassment of a stranger on the train asking you which stop is next and you having to ask them to repeat themselves four times before they give up and look at you like you’re this weird, deliberately unhelpful twat.
I have found that a good gauge of whether I’m somewhere too loud is if I cannot physically hear what someone is saying in my ear over the music
Anyway, I’m aware I’ve ranted for some time, and yes, this article is probably as much therapy for me as it is cautionary for you, but I hope that in amongst the self-pity there were a couple of useful facts. Maybe it’s even convinced you to be that grandma who takes earplugs on nights out, or to festivals this summer, in which case I can consider this time well spent. More than anything, be aware of the risk. I have found that a good gauge of whether I’m somewhere too loud is if I cannot physically hear what someone is saying in my ear over the music. Avoid environments that put you at risk, or wear earplugs. Because trust me, you don’t want to be in the situation where you no longer have the choice.