Tinnitus Defies Description, Some Relief Available

SYRACUSE, NY – Ask Flora Workman of Syracuse what tinnitus sounds like and she searches for the right words, the closest experience to which to compare hers.

“It’s so hard to describe,” she said. “At first I likened it to the sound a shell makes when you hold it up to your ear to hear the sea. I can also say it sounds like sitting in a car with an open window – the ‘whoosh’ of the air rushing by.”

Flora Workman and her tinnitus masker.
Flora Workman and her tinnitus masker.

Tinnitus is a little-understood condition, usually associated with hearing loss and aging, in which a person hears a continuous noise.

February 4 – 10 was Tinnitus Awareness Week.

Workman has been dealing with tinnitus in her right ear for a year.

“There’s no letup, no pause,” she said.

During the day it doesn’t bother her as much as it does at night, when there are no other noises or distractions.

“It’s hard to ignore at night; it’s very evident,” she said.

Although there is no cure for tinnitus, there are ways to minimize its disruption.

One is a tinnitus masker, which produces a noise that can vary from static to birds to crickets.

Maskers can be freestanding or fit into the ear like a hearing aid.

Workman keeps a freestanding one in her bedroom.

“The white noise masks the noise in the person’s head,” explained David DeFrancis, outreach director at Aurora of CNY.

Aurora is the only nonprofit in Central New York that exclusively serves people with hearing and vision loss.

Dr. Arlene Balestra Marko, a licensed audiologist with Hear for Life in Syracuse, said that tinnitus is often called “head noise” and pointed out that entertainers such as Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Steve Martin and William Shatner are among those affected.

There are two kinds of tinnitus, Marko explained.

One type – objective tinnitus – produces a sound that a physician can hear using specialized equipment; it is usually caused by vein or muscle issues.

A second – subjective tinnitus – produces a sound that others cannot hear; researchers have implicated the auditory nerve, the central auditory nervous system, and the hair cells in the ear as possible causes.

“Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease,” Marko said. “If you have tinnitus, see your physician for a complete evaluation to determine the cause. An audiologist may be able to do specialized tinnitus tests to determine the pitch and loudness of your tinnitus.”

Marko said some medications, biofeedback, yoga, exercise and meditation can help patients deal with tinnitus.

Another option is tinnitus retraining therapy, which includes counseling, education and sound therapy.

“This is a program based on brain flexibility and its ability to adapt to different situations,” she said of retraining therapy.

Research on all of these techniques, she cautioned, reveals mixed results.

“The goal of treatment is to reduce your perception of the tinnitus so that you are less bothered,” she said.