Tinnitus, an ear condition most commonly described as a ringing in the ears, has come to the forefront lately due to the release of the movie A Star Is Born starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, is a country-rock musician in the movie who suffers from the condition. He believes he got tinnitus when he stuck his head into his dad’s Victrola as a kid but, although possible, it’s more probable that he got it through years of playing his music, according to Dennis C. Fitzgerald, an assistant professor of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
Tinnitus is commonly understood as a ringing or buzzing in the ear. Sometimes people’s experience of tinnitus is not a ringing but rather a high-pitched whistle or whine, an electricity hum, a cricket sound, roaring, running water, sizzling, or thumping. If one ear is affected, the sound will usually be heard on one side, but often, when both ears are affected, patients will describe sounds as coming from the middle of their heads.
During the movie, Jackson Maine, Cooper’s character, is urged by his brother to wear earplugs, the kind specially designed for musicians that filter loud noise while allowing other noise to filter through at a lower volume. There are also wireless musician earplugs that allow music performed by accompanying musicians to be heard while crowd noise is filtered out. Regardless, Coopers’ character refrains from wearing the earplugs for fear of distancing himself from the crowd – a common sentiment expressed by average hearing aid wearers who fear isolation and the stigma of wearing one.
The tinnitus and hearing loss suffered by Jackson Maine, Cooper’s character, serves as a beacon for current and future musicians but also for non-musicians. Although most say to avoid prolonged exposure to loud noise, all it takes is a one-time exposure to a loud noise to damage the tiny sensory hair cells in your ear that transmit sound to your brain (tinnitus).
Tinnitus affects 15% of the US population or about 50 million people. However, 20 million people experience chronic tinnitus while 2 million people suffer with extreme and debilitating tinnitus. It affects all age groups, from teens to adults to seniors. “While tinnitus is most often subjective, in that it is perceived only by the patient, it can be very bothersome, impacting patients’ quality of life, and, in some cases, causing anxiety and depression,” says Lindsay A. Goodstein, M.D., of BergerHenry ENT Specialty Group in Philadelphia.
If Tinnitus is caused by exposure to noise, much like Cooper’s character, then hearing won’t get better if the ringing is reduced or eliminated. In fact, hearing loss usually accompanies tinnitus in 90% of cases.
It’s estimated that up to 40 million Americans suffer from noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). However, NIHL ranks second to age-related hearing loss which affects 33% of people aged 65 – 74 and 50% of seniors over the age of 75 years.
Tinnitus is not a medical condition in of itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying condition and can have many causes. Hearing loss is the most common identified cause, but there are many others. In fact, in rare cases, one-sided tinnitus can be a heralding sign of a possible inner ear tumor. Follow Dr. Goodstein’s advice: “if you are experiencing ringing in your ears, make sure to see an ear specialist who can determine the cause of your tinnitus, check your hearing, and provide appropriate treatment.”
A Star Is Born and three facts about hearing loss
American Tinnitus Association
Hearing loss and tinnitus common in musicians
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders