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Living with tinnitus - why once in a while silence would be golden

Tinnitus is an incurable condition which can lead to depression and sleep problems. Following deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness' admission that he has suffered from the ailment, Laurence White talks to two women about how they deal with the constant background noise.

Published 23/02/2016

Hearing problems: Hilary Lynas at her home in Portadown
Hearing problems: Hilary Lynas at her home in Portadown
Charity tune: Isobel Anderson wrote a song about tinnitus
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

With an estimated 10% of the population here suffering from tinnitus - which equates to thousands of people - the affliction was given prominence recently when Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness admitted he had suffered from the complaint for a decade.

Tinnitus is a result of damage to the inner ear usually as a result of repeated exposure to loud noises. Age-related hearing loss and a build-up of ear wax can also contribute.

Sufferers tend to have a constant buzzing or whistling in the ear and, to date, there is no cure or treatment.

It is believed, that due to the province's industrial past when the majority of working people where employed in shipbuilding and factories, there is a generation of us who could soon discover we have tinnitus.

Meanwhile, the Troubles will also have impacted on people's hearing with members of the security forces or emergency services potentially suffering as a result. We talk to two women about this debilitating condition and how they have learned to live with it.

'I just have to get on with my life, it's simply a case of mind over matter'

Hilary Lynas (66) is a retired primary school teacher. She lives in Portadown with her husband, Ian, a freelance motoring journalist. They have four grown-up children, Karen, Dawn, Neil and Gavin. She says:

I first noticed I had tinnitus about six years ago but at the time it caused me little bother and I did not seek any medical help.

Then, about a year ago, we were having some work done at our home which went on for some time. Apparently tinnitus can manifest itself more when you are under stress, although I was probably just more fed up than anything.

I noticed the noise most at night. It was a low pitched humming sound.

At first, I thought it was a car ticking over outside our home. I even got out of bed to look out the window to see who it was. Of course, there was no one there.

I was always moaning to my family about the noise. Everywhere I went I could hear it. It wasn't so bad during the day when household or everyday noises drowned it out.

I became convinced it was caused by some electrical device or fault and got my husband to turn off the meter but I could still hear it. I even got the electrician to come back and he was the first person to tell me he thought I had tinnitus.

My doctor then referred me to the ENT clinic at Craigavon Area Hospital where the condition was diagnosed. I was told there was no treatment for it - it was just how I could best handle or cope with it.

If it annoys me now in the night time I just turn the radio onto Classic FM and that helps me to get back to sleep. Fortunately, the radio doesn't annoy Ian, or, at least, he hasn't put me out of the room, yet. We have a caravan in Fermanagh and it can be quite noticeable when we are there and things are very quiet.

The tinnitus doesn't interfere with my conversations, although if I focus when talking to someone I can still hear that low pitched hum. A friend that I play golf with also has tinnitus but her condition is more high pitched, a sort of squeal.

I believe that if you let it get to you it will get you down and cause you to be stressed.

I have had hearing tests in hospital and my hearing is average for my age. All I can do is just deal with the problem as best as I can.

Fortunately, it does not prevent me getting to sleep at night and if I waken I just put on the radio.

But it is the first thing I hear every morning when I awaken.

I have been recommended to get a 'sound pillow' - a pillow that has a small speaker built into it and to which you can plug your iPlayer or MP3 player and listen to music.

But I love the pillow I have - I don't want to get used to another one - and I just use the radio at the side of my bed.

Perhaps it would be a good idea for other people who suffer from the condition.

I just get on with my life, it is a case of mind over matter. I had breast cancer 26 years ago and have Parkinson's now, so I can cope with tinnitus. I won't allow it to get me down."

'I didn't sleep for a month, I was close to a breakdown'

Isobel Anderson (31) is a singer/songwriter who splits her time between Belfast and Brighton and has recently completed a PhD in sound art at Queen's University. She says:

On the Easter weekend in 2011 I awoke one morning to find that I could not hear out of my left ear. Wax was blocking my ear and then an infection began behind the wax.

I was told by my doctor that I would have to wait some days until the wax could be removed. Then tinnitus started to emerge. It was really loud and I was unable to sleep.

It was a loud tone and, sometimes, a cluster of tones. It was as if someone was holding a big battery up to my ear. I was unable to sleep for about a week and finally decided to walk into the ENT clinic at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

There the wax was removed with a vacuum-like device. There had been so much wax plugging the eardrum that I couldn't speak because of the pressure and the pain. For the next three weeks I still could not sleep because of the tinnitus. I had been given sleeping pills but then got a consultation with the lead consultant at the ENT clinic.

By that time I was almost certifiable because I hadn't slept for about a month and was on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown.

The consultant was amazing and took my condition very seriously.

He referred me to a hearing therapist and that was when I started to turn the corner. I got help from someone who really understood the condition and how I was feeling.

She used a few different methods to help me. One was small sound generators - like a hearing aid - which were set just below the level of the tinnitus. I had to wear them for a minimum of six hours a day for two years.

I also began to listen to some environmental sounds such as the sounds of the sea or the jungle. At a primal level most humans find those sounds relaxing and at a neurological level they drown out the tinnitus. They stimulate the hearing pathways.

Listening to them at night helped me to get to sleep. My GP also prescribed anti-anxiety drugs which also helped. I had regular consultations with the hearing therapist which enabled me to cope with the tinnitus. Fortunately it did not really interfere with my music. However, during my studies I sometimes had to go into a soundproof room and then I could hear the tinnitus really loud. I had to tell people that I needed help.

I was incredibly lucky getting referred to the hearing therapist. At that time I believe she was the only one, or one of two, in the whole of the province. There is a dire need for more like her.

Thanks to her my tinnitus did not hamper my music career. That was due to the really good help I received. If I had not got that help it might well have been a different story.

I wrote a song about my tinnitus - Little Sounds of Pain - with all the proceeds going to the British Tinnitus Association.

Today I am much better than at the beginning. I still feel bad about having tinnitus but I have learned to accept that it is part of me, like another arm. That certainly was not the view I took during the first six months.

The hearing therapist made me realise that it is not a really terrible thing, just something I have, just a sound. I have learned not to worry that it won't go away. The more you tell yourself that the more you can believe it and the more you try to do things that you thought at first you could not do. The more you get on with life the quieter it becomes.

Even though there is no cure there is a lot of hope out there, but you have to fight to get the help you need. The British Tinnitus Association has lots of information which you can simply ring up and ask for. Don't go on to internet forums, get the proper information. Information is key."

  • For more information visit the Action on Hearing Loss website for details of support groups province-wide at tinnitus-support-in-northern-ireland.aspx or call British Tinnitus Association (BTA) helpline: 0800 018 0527 or visit

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