For musicians, tinnitus is a very real problem

For musicians, tinnitus is a very real problem

You’ve probably heard of tinnitus, but hopefully you’ve never heard it. It’s not pleasant, but unfortunately millions of people suffer from it, and an all-too-large number of those people are musicians and music lovers. It’s strange that we all likely know the dangers of exposing ourselves to loud music, and yet, we do it over and over again, whether playing music or listening to it. And worse, we subject ourselves to loud music for prolonged periods. 45 minutes to an hour listening to our favorite album. Banging our heads to our favorite band for a three-hour set at “ear-splitting” volume. Honestly, so many of us are just asking for trouble, and unfortunately, all too many of us get the trouble we were asking for.

What is tinnitus?

Most people experience tinnitus as, or at least describe it as, ringing in the ears, but it can manifest itself in a variety of sounds. The American Tinnitus Association website says,

Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can manifest many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. Tinnitus can be both an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health malady.

A diagram of the ear
The ear is a complex and delicate instrument, and you kind of need it to enjoy music. Don’t abuse it.

If you have tinnitus, then you’re one of an estimated 45 to 50 million Americans who suffer with it. It’s one of the most common health problems out there. If you’re lucky enough to have suffered only temporary tinnitus, hopefully it scared you enough to heed the warning and take steps to avoid permanent damage. If you’ve never experienced it at all, you don’t want to. Trust me; I live with tinnitus every day, and, quite frankly, it sucks. Everyone’s is different, but mine sounds a bit like the super high-end feedback you often hear coming from the stage when the sound engineer doesn’t have the mics set just right, or the singer steps in front of the house PA with microphone in hand. The difference is that I can’t pull the mic away or lower a volume knob to make it stop. I have two or three different frequencies of that “feedback” constantly ringing in my ears.

The causes of tinnitus

Tinnitus occurs when one suffers damage to and the loss of the tiny sensory hair cells in the cochlea of the inner ear. It most often afflicts people over 50, but can also be caused in younger people due to exposure to excessively loud noises, and especially in situation where the loud volume is prolonged. Sort of like a rock concert, eh? Tinnitus doesn’t necessarily include loss of hearing, but it can. Men are more susceptible than women, and smokers increase their chances of developing the condition.

Of course, tinnitus doesn’t come just from loud music. Any loud sound can damage your hearing and cause tinnitus. I actually feel like my own tinnitus did not come from loud music. For most of my musical career, I wore earplugs on stage, and I was never one to enjoy ear-shattering volumes when I listen to music. So where did my tinnitus come from?

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time working with my dad. He was as blue as a blue-collar guy can get, and he was always working on fixing something mechanical. I would accompany him to “the shop” to help him with something he was working on. Or we would work for long hours out on his family’s farm doing all sort of jobs. And it seemed like most of those jobs were noisy. Really, really noisy. Sitting on a tractor for 10 hours straight with the engine screaming at you, standing next to the blower for hours as you filled a silo with silage, shoveling corn into the corn drier late into the night…there certainly was no shortage of loud environments to be in at the farm or in the shop.

My dad is also a very intelligent man, but he was never too smart when it came to safety precautions. We never wore eye protection or ear protection. “Be careful” was about the extent of safety procedures when working with dad. So, over the years, I think all of that noise exposure caught up with me.

Still, I never thought much about my tinnitus when I was young. It wasn’t that bad, and I guess I just thought it was normal. Like everyone heard those sounds. But then I started playing music, and I think that’s when I took my tinnitus to a new level. I was always conscious of the volume of the music, and when I first started playing, I thought I could protect myself by jamming crunched up tissue paper into my ears. Yes, I was that ignorant. For the record: that doesn’t protect you.

One day I was invited to play bass with a group that was looking for a new member. We filed up the narrow staircase to their second-floor practice space, which was essentially just a small bedroom. I set my rig up in a closet and stood half in there myself so all five of us could fit in the space. Then they started to play. I swear that was the most God-awful loud volume I have ever been exposed to. The guitars were up to 11. The “singer” was screaming at the top of her shrill voice into a microphone plugged into a guitar amp also cranked to the max. The drums where right beside my head. It was, to say the least, unpleasant. I jammed more tissue in my ears and played along for a couple of hours, not wanting to be a “wimp” or uncool by complaining it was too loud.

I remember the relief of walking out of there. My ears were ringing, but it didn’t concern me too much–it would go away. Later that day I decided to go for a swim in our apartment pool. I climbed up onto the diving board and plunged in. The first instant of jumping into a new pool is always unpleasant for me due to the jolt of cold from the water, but this was something altogether different. I can’t even describe what I felt as soon as my ears were under water other than to say that I thought my head was going to explode. It was horrible and painful. And frightening. Believe me; that day I noticed my tinnitus, and I’ve never not noticed it since.

While loud noises seem to be the main cause of the condition, other things can cause it too. Some medications (like aspirin in high doses) can cause it or make it worse, ear infections may cause it, and people with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems, which affect the joint between the jaw bone and the cheek bone can experience it.

How do you cure tinnitus?

You don’t. Sorry to be so blunt, but a cure for the condition has not been discovered. You can try to mitigate the problem by addressing those non-noise-related causes I just mentioned, but once you have chronic damage, you have it for good. At least for now.

You don’t cure it, you learn to manage it

Luckily for most of us, it’s not a debilitating condition. Most of us can live with it and are able to ignore it for the most part. Others are not so lucky, and it can be a serious health problem. For these people, treatment generally centers around treating the effects of the condition rather than the condition itself. Helping suffers manage depression, anxiety, and so forth is about all that can be done. One thing that I find effective is to (ironically enough) avoid total silence. Since I cannot experience total silence anyway (because I always hear several different frequencies of high ringing), I find it helpful to have other sounds–real sounds–to overtake the tinnitus.

The worst time for me is when I lay down at night to sleep. The house is nearly quiet, and that’s when the tinnitus suddenly sounds excessively loud. In reality though, any external noise can overcome the tinnitus for my attention. Sometimes something as simple as forcing myself to cough can break the hold tinnitus has on me. I realize how lucky I am to be able to say that.

The other time I notice it most comes just after a recording or mixing session. I record and mix almost entirely in headphones, so the sound is right on my ears. I try hard to do all of my work at quite low volumes, but even still, after a two- or three-hour session, the ringing is powerful.

Since you can’t cure it, avoid it

The sad part about noise-induced tinnitus (well, other than having it), is that it’s probably almost entirely preventable, but so many people ignore the risk and fail to take necessary precautions. Let me ask those of you with kids how easy it is to convince them that they’re asking for trouble with those earbuds at high volume. It’s unfortunate, but we seem to have to learn the hard way. And it’s not just kids either. Those of you who are musicians, what are you doing to protect yourselves? I know it’s not very “rock and roll” to wear protection on stage, but do it. For years I’ve worn the squishy/spongy type like these ones (and as I write this, they’re on sale through my affiliate link, so what do you have to lose?)

For Caucasians (like me), these flesh-colored plugs are quite indiscreet. I imagine they make black ones too for those of you with darker skin, but I’ve worn a variety of colors. I’ve worn bright orange and I’ve worn yellow. I’d rather they were an indiscreet color, but if they’re not, I’d rather protect my hearing that look cool. Whenever people would tease me for wearing ear plugs, I would say, “I love music too much to go deaf listening to it and playing it.” Then I put the plugs in and left them to be “cool” if that’s what they chose. I have a pair in a small case that I keep in my pocket so that I always have them with me. I don’t like putting myself in a situation where I have to choose between hurting my ears or leaving a venue because it’s too loud.

Sure, earplugs feel funny when you first put them in, but you soon forget you’re wearing them. And I found something very interesting after I started wearing them regularly. I found that when I’m listening to a live band, or I’m in an environment with loud music, the earplugs lead overall to a much more pleasing experience. Without earplugs, the music–especially the high frequencies–completely overwhelms my ears. More than just making them hurt, the loud music just doesn’t sound pleasing to me. Ironically, the earplugs increase my enjoyment in a huge way because all of those overpowering frequencies are filtered out to some extent and brought to a manageable–and safer–level. My ears don’t hurt, but beyond that, I can actually hear the music more clearly. Even while playing on stage, they help. No longer do I need to fight for volume in my monitor. Since my ears aren’t overwhelmed, I can hear everything, including my own voice in my head. It’s great.

Without the high guitar notes overpowering my ability to distinguish sounds, I can now hear the vocals plainly. I can enjoy individual guitar notes and piano licks. And now, when the person next to me screams right into my ear to say, “Dude; this is awesome!” I can actually hear the words and they don’t hurt.

OK; I’ll get off of my high horse. It’s just that thinking back to that head-exploding experience of diving into the water sends shivers up my spine. I realized that we are all only one loud experience away from true hearing damage and loss. If you’ve never experienced tinnitus, count your blessings. But beyond that, I suggest instead of just counting, you take action to protect yourself so that you never have to hear what it sounds like. And if for you, like for me, it’s too late, then get smart and prevent further damage.

Share the adventure:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Help share the music adventure