I've complained about it a couple of times here before. Since late October 1999, I've had Tinnitus in my right ear. Largely due, it seems, to systematic abuse I'd stupidly subjected myself to via my flagrant disregard for protection at countless high-volume rock shows and my tireless need to wear headphones every waking hour of the day during my youth. Y'see, when you're in your teens and your twenties, you're pretty much convinced of your own invincibility. It's when you cross the Rubicon of 30 and stuff starts fallin' apart on ya that you finally wake up and smell your own mortality. In any case, given my former credo that "it's never loud enough!", I started paying the price for my irresponsible stupidity seven years ago. That price manifested itself as a constant, shrill ringing in my right ear.
At the time, I panicked. I went to my primary care physician, who in turn sent me to a specialist. I also went and saw an audiologist, who was a friend of my father's. After a few hearing tests, I'd sit down with each of them, and they'd tell me all sorts of stuff -- the only bits of which I remember were that I'd damaged my hearing in terms of higher frequencies and that there really wasn't anything they could do about the ringing. Great.
For about two years, I swore off the headphones, I started dilligently wearing earplugs when I went to shows and I sought out homeopathic treatments. I took Ginko Biloba for a while, as it's been said that it sometimes relieved sufferers of Tinnitus, but it didn't seem to make a big difference in my case. I continue to sporadically take a supplement encouragingly called RingStop, but I can't say it's really made a big difference either.
Over time, though, I just learned to live with it. I even started using headphones again (though I'm more judicious about my volume levels). My deep-seated Catholic guilt tells me I shouldn't complain about my Tinnitus being that (a) I brought it on myself and (b) I don't have it that bad (I know musicians who have it in both ears, etc.) It only really bothers me when I'm trying to get to sleep. During my waking hours, the ring is largely blotted out by the white noise of everyday activity. So, I've simply been dealing with it. Moreover, they say that if you concentrate too hard on the ring -- even if it were to go away, your brain would compensate for it --- creating a ring that you're so used to listening for. Not wanting it to completely take over my life, I carry on and hope for the best. In the grand scheme of things, there are people with sincere problems in this world, and I'm lucky enough to not count myself among them. I can live with the ring.
In the last six months, however, I noticed a spike in the ringing. For one reason or another, its volume and shrillness had increased in intensity. Again, I started to panic. Had I pushed my luck? Had I done more damage? I started getting very concerned and very depressed. I consoled myself with the fact that certain elements can worsen the ring, notably diet, sleep deprivation and stress. Given that salt, caffeine and alcohol are purported culprits in the worsening of Tinnitus symptoms (and three major staples of my regular diet), I figured that had something to do with it. And given that I'd just had a second child and started a new job in the span of only a couple of months, my sleep deprivation and stress levels had also significantly increased, so those were probably major factors as well. I relaxed again, and sure enough -- the ring started to fade back to its original volume. Still there, but not as pronounced.
At the time of the spike, however, I started doing some research and looking into other treatments. I'd read that many Tinnitus sufferers had turned to acupuncture. While I'm inherently wildly skeptical of such things, I really thought I had nothing to lose. I'd been initially skeptical about chiropractic medicine as well, but when I'd developed an inexplicable pain in my sternum in the mid-90's, it wasn't conventional Western medicine that cleared it up, but rather a chiropractor. So, maybe acupuncture was worth a try. I brought it up with a friend of my family's who has been our "go to" doctor since I was a child. While also skeptical, given his profession, he too thought it might be worth a try. Before doing so, however, he advised me to talk to an ear doctor friend of his for a second opinion. The next day, he called me with that doctor's information and told me he'd already mentioned me to him. Now I kinda had to call him.
The idea of sitting down with another doctor wasn't wildly enthralling. If truth be told, I thought the last ear doctor I'd gone to see was a complete asshole (he kinda doubted my symptoms, which did not especially endear me to him). That all said, the mere fact that I'd been finding myself asking my wife to repeat herself more often than not, and the notion of losing more of my hearing (and now with two little children) had me more concerned than ever.
So, I called this new ear doctor. That appointment was this week. I trudged on up to the Upper East Side (ugh...I haven't been up there in quite some time, but 2nd avenue in the mid-70's has really not improved with age). I went in for another hearing test first, and the outcome was largely the same as it was seven years ago. I guess I did alright on the "Speech Audiometry" test, but on the "Pure Tone Air/Bone Conduction" test (there's a great band name in there somewhere), my higher frequency hearing is still pretty shot. Oddly, my hearing is evidently worse in my left ear (the ear without the ring). The examiner of these tests -- a woman about my mother's age who kept comparing me to her own "stubborn, thick-headed" son (hey - if the shoe fits, wear it) -- didn't seem hugely alarmed but wasn't all that encouraging about it either. The doctor, meanwhile, was a cool gent, though he had absolutely zero faith in my acupuncture notion. Instead, he told me he'd like to have me take the worryingly-titled Brainstem Auditory Evoked Responses (BAER) test, which -- I gather -- measures evoked responses of the central auditory nervous system. "It sounds much scarier than it is," he said. Supposedly, it only takes about five minutes. But the results of said test, he says, will help us move forward in terms of possible treatment (though there remains no cure) and, ideally, rule out anything "more ominous." Oh great -- way to end on a high note.
So, I'm now due to set up my BAER appointment. Five minutes or not, I'd be shamefully fibbing if I said I was looking forward to it. But, at the very least, it'll be a learning experience. And if it can provide more clues as to how to proceed, I'm all for it.
So stay tuned, but mind that volume knob!!