Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hey, you, what's that sound?

Eighteen years ago this month, I noticed something very strange as I went to sleeep. As a 17-year-old, discovering weird new sensations in bed was not uncommon, but this was something rather more disturbing. As the CD I was listening to faded out, I could hear a constant, high-pitched hum.

The buzzing noise sounded like the TV had been left on with the sound turned down. There was no picture on the little set I used to play my Sega Megadrive, but I checked it anyway. It was unplugged at the wall. I turned the stereo off, too. That didn't make any difference. I could have searched the bedroom for a stray electronic toothbrush, but that would just have been silly.

Eventually, I decided to ignore the noise and slowly wrestled myself to sleep. When I woke, it was still there. Eighteen years later, it is still there.

You've probably guessed by now: I had developed tinnitus. The trigger was most likely my beloved drum kit - apparently the volume and pitch of the cymbals, positioned handily at ear level, had irrevocably damaged my hearing. The condition probably started on Children In Need day, 1991, when I played at three concerts in one day.

When you tell people you've got tinnitus, they immediately seem very concerned and occasionally START TALKING VERY LOUDLY, as if you've secretly been blocking them out for the last two decades (in some cases, I admit, this would be a benefit). Luckily, I am not badly afflicted. The ringing in my ears is no louder than the hum of a computer fan. It's blocked out by general office noise, low-level chatter and even the general background thrum of living in London.

Going to sleep, I can ignore the noise with a bit of music - which, as long-time readers of this blog will realise, is more of a burden to my wife than it is to me.

Nonetheless, I miss silence. That disorientating absence of sound you get at nighttime in the countryside; how the movement of your clothes is suddenly amplified by the vacuum; the way that dead air wraps you up like a baby in a blanket. To have those sensations unspoilt by the aggravating squeal of tinnitus would be bliss.

The past couple of days have seen two breakthroughs in tinnitus research. In Ireland, researchers believe they may have found a way to repair the damage to tiny hairs in your ear, which is believed to trigger the condition. More disturbingly, doctors in the US think they might be able to cure it by putting chips which generate electronic noise directly into the brain. I think I know which option I'll try first.

Like I say, my tinnitus has been manageable. But a lot of people have it worse. The ringing in their ears can sound like a permanent dawn chorus, with thousands of birds chattering away inside their head. Others experience a rushing noise, lose the ability to hear certain parts of speech and experience nausea and loss of balance. 2.5 million people in the UK have it - and music fans are, sadly, amongst the most at risk.

I don't advocate wearing earplugs at gigs unless you're out every night* - because I think it ruins the experience. Nor do I think people should stop wearing headphones (although I would recommend getting noise cancelling ones if you're on public transport - the Tube in London is already 80-90dB, so anything extra exposes you to noise levels similar to a pneumatic drill). But I tend to agree with the EU when it calls for tougher volume limits on MP3 players.

Take it from me, if you damage your lugholes you'll regret it for the rest of your life.

* If you are a heavy gig-goer or you're worried about your hearing, this site is very useful: Don't Lose The Music

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