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RNID Audiologist Crystal Rolfe on the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show

Posted on 20/04/2011

You can listen to the show on BBC iPlayer - The tinnitus discussion starts about 33 minutes in.

The below is a transcript of the discussion.

Jeremy Vine: A pensioner from Essex was so tormented by the sound of screaming in his ears that he shot himself in the head. Roy Sullivan from Nazeing had been suffering from severe tinnitus, a terrible condition, when he took his own life in January. At the inquest in Chelmsford yesterday his wife Eileen told the court, ‘all he wanted was some peace and quiet’. Tinnitus is a condition that can leave you with a constant ringing in your ears, I’m sure you know, and it can drown out everything else, it can be very very loud. Have a listen to this and see how long you can bear it before you want to turn the radio down.

[Tinnitus simulation]

Now that white noise is what someone with tinnitus may hear every minute of the day. And if that wasn’t bad enough, hears another example of what tinnitus sufferers might be putting up with.

[Tinnitus simulation]

Or can you imagine this banging noise, like the neighbours are doing DIY when you are trying to sleep? This is tinnitus as well.

[Tinnitus simulation]

The British Tinnitus Association provided us with those sounds, just to try and give us all some idea of what it can be like. It’s almost like torture. In a moment we’ll find out more about the condition from the audiology specialist with the RNID Action on Hearing Loss, first of all though let’s speak to a man who can understand what this pensioner who committed suicide went through. Andy Sheack is from Welling in Hertfordshire, and you’ve got this tinnitus in your ears, is it both ears Andy?

Guest 1: Yes Jeremy it is. It started, I used to be a musician many many years ago, 19 years old. A big acoustic trauma in a studio set off a raging tinnitus in my ears, and also another condition which was traumatic to say the least because it finished my career, I couldn’t stand noise. But the tinnitus has remained with me for the past 35 years, I’m 55 now.

Jeremy Vine: Wow, well you were 19. So you were wearing some headphones I gather were you?

Guest 1: No, I wasn’t. It was from a large monitor speaker in this rehearsal studio.

Jeremy Vine: Oh, ok. And somebody put some very loud sound through it?

Guest 1: Yeah, a big feedback, a big whistling noise.

Jeremy Vine: And just one big, big blast of that was enough to, what, block out an ear drum, is that what it physically does?

Guest 1: No, it causes damage in the inner ear. It’s not a physical condition as such, it’s the high level of noise that’s generated excites the nerve ending in the inner ear, and it can vary. It can come, it can go, it can be with you all the time, mine’s with me all the time but it doesn’t bother me any more unless I go somewhere where its very noisy and I don’t have my hearing protection with me.

Jeremy Vine: Just before we talk about how you dealt with it, describe how bad it got, cos I know you say you were 19, and the first 6 months of it were hell.

Guest1: Absolutely, yeah. If you can imagine, I mean its very interesting, you’ve just played those sounds and mine are nothing like that. Mine are like whistling noises, but several at a time, and they move around my head. When it’s bad it’s just completely consuming, you can’t focus or concentrate on anything else, it’s a nightmare.

Jeremy Vine: Did it get you in to despair? Because I know this pensioner had gone through depression over it.

Guest1: Yes, I was very lucky, A because I was in the music environment, and although it was a very long time ago, it’s not a new condition. Anyone who’s generally exposed themselves to a lot of noise can experience tinnitus. I mean most people who are going to a gig or a club are going to come out from that venture with ringing ears, but they wake up the next morning and it’s generally gone so they don’t give it a second thought. Unfortunately, prolonged exposure to loud noise can mean that that tinnitus doesn’t necessarily go away.

Jeremy Vine: Tell us about how you address it yourself

Guest 1: Really with support from a very old musician friend of mine, who’s long gone now, but he told me that if I didn’t learn to love it would get the better of me. And I woke up one morning, it was a little bit better than it was the day before, and that was a positive note, and I just, um, maybe I was lucky Jeremy, I don’t know, but I managed to have the tinnitus subside to a level where it became more tolerable.

Jeremy Vine: So rather like when someone has a traumatic even, rather than running from it, they learn to embrace it and accept it, and build around it. It’s almost a psychological approach it?

Guest 1: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of psychology involved, because it’s a subject of sensation, generally, and it’s difficult to pinpoint. It’s difficult to say exactly what causes it, and there are many drugs outside the noise induced tinnitus, that can also be a cause. Ototoxic drugs can be very damaging in terms of creating bad tinnitus.

Jeremy Vine: And you’ve produced a kind of earpiece then that can be used by formula one drivers and anyone else?

Guest 1: Yeah. I couldn’t be a musician, because I couldn’t stand the noise, so I trained to be an audiologist, and I set about developing products that would stop what happened to me happening to other musician, but over the years, you know, we live in a noisy world, so people who drive race cars, people who work in noisy factories, people that go clubbing, anyone who’s exposed to noise should really be aware that they ought really think carefully about protecting their hearing.

Jeremy Vine: Thank you very much Andy. All the best, Andy Sheack from Welling in Hertfordshire. Now we’ve got on the phone Crystal Rolfe, who is an audiology specialist with the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, Action on Hearing Loss. Good afternoon to you Crystal.

Guest2: Good afternoon.

Jeremy Vine: So that description from Andy is troubling isn’t it, but he seems to have got a hold on it somehow?

Crystal Rolfe: Yes, and we know about 4.7 million people in the UK have experienced tinnitus, and that’s just the name given to ay noise that you have in your ears or head, ringing, whistling, humming, buzzing. The kind of noises that you were playing on the simulator at the beginning. Most people do learn to live with it, and do learn coping tactics that will help, but we do know that about 5% of adults have tinnitus that they find severely or moderately annoying and it really gives them trouble sleeping. Now you can imagine having that noise in your head when you’re trying to get to sleep, it really can be difficult.

Jeremy Vine: Well I mentioned to Zoe that a very good friend of mine, same age as me, mid 40s, that she has had it in one ear, and the eight weeks ago she woke up and it was in the other ear as well. And she said it’s louder than a rock concert, you know, it is so loud, and I don’t know how she keeps her head together.

Crystal Rolfe:  Exactly. There are a lot of coping methods that can help; there are a number of products which can help you, that you can contact RNID to find out more about.

Jeremy Vine: Give us an example.

Crystal Rolfe: So for instance if you’re having trouble sleeping you can have a little thing called a pillow speaker which you pop under your pillow and it plays you a range of different sounds. It can be relaxing sounds, it can be a masking noise, and that way its not disturbing anybody else, and you can just concentrate on those noises rather than your tinnitus sound, if you do have a hearing loss and tinnitus, which many people do, hearing aids also help you to focus on the sounds around you, environmentally, rather than listening to your own noise. Having environmental sound on in the house, a radio, a fan, anything like to distract you from your own tinnitus also will help. But the main thing is that if it’s really really troubling you, especially if the tinnitus is in one ear, or if you have any pain in your ears, you should speak to your GP, and they’ll be able to refer you on to an audiology specialist or an ear nose and throat doctor.

Jeremy Vine: Sure. What about, I saw a report that said they’d done an experiment on rats and gone in and found the receptor that are jangling around and just basically cauterised them, burnt them out so they don’t work any more. Can you do that?

Crystal Rolfe: There’s lots of research going on looking at the causes of tinnitus. RNID is funding a lot of research along those lines at the moment, looking at what causes tinnitus, and how we can develop a cure. And we really hope to see a cure not too long in the future.

Jeremy Vine:  Right, what about that, did you see that report, can you comment on that report?

Crystal Rolfe: I can’t comment on that individual report, but there is lots of research going on, that RNID is funding as well, to look at the causes of tinnitus and to find a cure, which is really important.

Jeremy Vine: If you’re sitting next to someone in a train and you can hear the music through their earphones, and they are 28 years old are they going to get it?

Crystal Rolfe: Exactly. Well there’s lots of things that cause tinnitus, and one of the biggest causes is degeneration of the tiny sensory hair like cells in the inner ear, and this degeneration can be caused by the aging process, but if you are exposed to lots of loud noise such as going to clubs, gigs, pubs and playing your MP3 player too loud as you have described those things will all contribute to the degeneration of those little cells and so noise exposure really is the biggest preventable cause of tinnitus.

Jeremy Vine: We know that, but I’m saying if you are sitting next to someone on a train and you can hear their earpiece does that mean it is too loud?

Crystal Rolfe: If you can hear someone else’s music, then yes it is too loud for them

Jeremy Vine: Thank you very much Crystal Rolfe of the RNID.

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