Can Tinnitus Cause Deafness
The whole subject of tinnitus, vast and extending into the outer reaches of human thought and back through history, is full of isolated and interlocking mysteries for the layman and scientist interested in it. What is the biggest conundrum, apart from questions of its future cure? Oddities and contradictions abound.
Sufferers ask such things as 'Why do some people find the sound of a noisy party drowns it out, but it makes it worse for me?' Or 'How is it that a few drinks can partly blot out tinnitus in some people but one glass of red wine makes mine sound even more?' The contradictions are surely embedded in each person's unique nature and personality, both of which reflect their perception of tinnitus and their differing reactions to a common stimulus.
It may not be a bad thing that tinnitus does not have fixed patterns in everyone. Without such uniformity, an individual can at least take some therapeutic interest in what is best for him, and take some comfort and hope from knowing to some extent what to do and not to do for his own special sounds. These personal contradictions, if indeed they deserve the name, can happily remain as mysteries on the unsolved list for as long as sufferers need to shape their habits and social activities in order to find a measure of peace.
Sufferers often ponder a common contradiction concerning deafness and tinnitus. Before very long after the inception of his sounds, the person experiencing tinnitus puzzles over the fact that someone with a lot of tinnitus can have very sharp hearing, but mild tinnitus can bring deafness.
A brief answer is that it is no more strange than the fact, which is accepted without question, that a severely deaf person does not necessarily have tinnitus. Surgeons and physicians point out that gradual aging of or damage to the inner ear can cause hearing loss and noises at the same time but there is no scientific reason to expect the two things always to coincide. Moreover, slowly developing deafness is not always noticed until tinnitus starts, though the person swears they both started together.
All of this is true but still does not provide us with the full explanation. Any extraneous noise can obliterate some sounds for anyone with good hearing. The brain learns – or is born with the ability – to separate sounds and hear, unimpaired, that which it needs to hear. But is there anyone who, say, listening to a string quartet would not be distracted or slightly 'deafened' by a baby suddenly screaming nearby? How, then, can serious tinnitus yell or drum away not nearby but fight inside the head, and still not deafen?
The most careful research to date in the brief two decades of scientific work on tinnitus still paints with too broad a brush to create an accurate picture of the brain/ear connection and its millions of components. The truth about deafness and tinnitus may one day be revealed in one swoop or painfully slowly, showing that the subjects have, after all, more distance between them than common ground. One can find dedicated researchers ready to embrace either view – or say it is too early to make an educated guess.
Sufferers and their families long to see tinnitus acknowledged in its own right, and universally seen as a serious problem pleading for undivided attention. Only then can there be adequate resources and dedication to tame and then destroy it. Thoughts on those lines remain somewhat wishful to date, but a start has been made in reaching the off-stated goal.
Meanwhile, deafness and tinnitus, even for those with head noises and no hearing loss, are bound to co-exist in the public's mind, as they do in researchers who believe that the conquering of deafness will also stop unwanted sounds. While they remain so closely linked, comparisons of the two conditions are inevitable. It is often asked which is the worse? To make any sense of the question, let alone answer it, one has to eliminate comparing an extremely bad example of one with a mild case of the other.
Yet such an elimination is tricky itself , as there is no proper way of applying the same method of measurement to both. A technician can quickly plot the quantity and nature of someone's deafness in a test lasting a few minutes, while tinnitus remains resolutely subjective. The sufferer can equate given internal sounds to the frequency and volume of external sounds created for comparison, but his reaction to and tolerance of the tinnitus make up a crucial factor definable solely in terms, as yet objectively unexpressed, of his anguish or acceptance.
Is there, then, any way to strike a comparison between the unpleasantness of totally deaf isolation and the ever-pervading presence of head sounds? The best way to find out, for the time being, is to listen to the spontaneous comments and anecdotal evidence of ordinary men and women through the years. What have they told their doctors, their friends and relatives?
The most significant pointer may be the many times patients will ask if there is an ear operation to take away tinnitus, even if it meant losing their hearing totally. Such a question is naturally asked mostly by those with very bad tinnitus. The prospect of being rid of the sounds overcomes the thought of losing one's hearing. Their disappointment is great on being told that no such surgery is possible, and that operations on the ear can even worsen tinnitus. Equally significant in the quest for a true tinnitus/deafness comparison, there seem to be no instances of a deaf person wanting the reverse to happen.
A totally deaf patient would never seriously ask for an operation to restore hearing if the inevitable price would be a mixture of loud permanent noises in the head. 'Cure my tinnitus and I'll willingly surrender my remaining hearing' is the cry from a large sample of the tinnitus population, of whom the worst sufferers have no difficulty in nominating deafness as the lesser affliction. Moreover, there simply does not seem to be a remotely acceptable way of measuring them alongside each other.
Broad public attitudes displayed by people with one or both of the conditions also throw up a chasm of perception between them. The hearing world would be surprised to learn of the strong advocacy of deaf culture among the deaf.
Their loss of good, or any, hearing has led many to embrace their handicap not as something to be rejected as quickly as possible if cures are found but as a valued dimension in their whole lives. They speak of what they would miss if their hearing problem was solved. Among the perceived advantages is the loose network of deaf clubs, societies and contacts which have over the years enriched and sustained their lives. They value the comradeship and the social cohesion established among many deaf people and their helpers, including medical people and social workers.
What, if anything, would be a suitable substitute if such unquantifiable bonuses were lost? And why should it be expected, they argue, that unalloyed joy would flood into their lives when good hearing would bring the noisy pollution of everyday life, with the high decibels of heavy traffic and perhaps noisy neighbours invading the enforced silence of deafness to which many have become accustomed?
All this is not to say that deafness is not a horrible burden from which millions long to be relieved. The phrase 'deaf culture' is, none the less, increasingly on the lips of an articulate minority of deafened people who actually see at least some aspects of the deaf world which are positive, and certainly are not capable of being surrendered without very mixed feelings.
It is not easy to find people with deafness and tinnitus wishing to preserve the world as they experience it. The 'culture' of deafness does offer such people a safety net of local clubs and social contacts, in cases where they feel their afflictions would otherwise totally isolate them. Welfare for deaf people in an organized form stretches back well into the nineteenth century and provides understanding and support, even a purpose in life. But take away the handicap and its palliatives would soon become redundant, seems to be the general opinion of dual deaf-tinnitus sufferers.
Some of them share the view of many disability groups that it is better not to hope and wait for a cure but to accept the reality and seek the best possible life within the unavoidable constraints. But attaching the word 'culture', even in its correct meaning, will never sanctify an essential unpleasantness or raise it to a way of life to be defended against what science and human progress may have in store. Still less likely is the prospect of much advocacy of 'tinnitus culture' on its own.
The affliction does draw people together, among those who wish to meet socially on a regular club basis. The contacts and friendships thus gained in tinnitus groups are highly valued in their own right. People of all ages find the mutual support can give them the will to carry on with their lives and bear their tinnitus with hope and fortitude. It is good that such groups thus diminish the threatening potential of tinnitus, but they would require an attitudinal quantum leap to emulate some deaf people and talk about, with affection, their 'tinnitus culture'.
This, then, is another way of showing that deafness and tinnitus, though often shared, are worlds apart. Its very rejection of 'culture' perhaps serves to indicate that tinnitus brings a suffering worse than that which total silence can bestow. To find out more, you can check out Can Tinnitus Cause Deafness.
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