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How these Northern Ireland people are coping with the endless noise of tinnitus

Tinnitus, the sensation of hearing sounds that don't come from an external source, can have debilitating effects on people's lives. To mark Tinnitus Week, which runs until Sunday, Rebekah McKinstry hears how two NI people manage and what charity Action on Hearing Loss is doing to help

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Raising awareness: Bronagh Lavery

Raising awareness: Bronagh Lavery

Background noise: Bronagh with her husband Thomas and children Alexa, Blaine and Cason

Background noise: Bronagh with her husband Thomas and children Alexa, Blaine and Cason

Teacher Bronagh Lavery (37), from Newtownabbey, developed tinnitus after attending a youth disco in Belfast when she was 12.

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Raising awareness: Bronagh Lavery

Raising awareness: Bronagh Lavery

Raising awareness: Bronagh Lavery

Tinnitus, the sensation of hearing a sound in one ear, both ears or in the head that doesn't have an external source, affects more than one in eight people in the UK. Most people only experience tinnitus on a mild level but for some it can have a severe effect on their lives.

For Bronagh, a secondary school geography teacher, who lives with husband Thomas and children Alexa (10), Blaine (8) and Cason (5), the ringing has never gone away. It can keep her awake at night until two or three in the morning and affects her work and home life.

In 2017, it became so bad that she stopped going to the staff room at break and lunch times as she couldn't hear the conversations people were having over the noise of her tinnitus.

"I used to attend a youth disco with friends in Belfast," she says. "They had big speakers playing very loud music and my ears often rang after a night there. One particular night I stood very close to the speaker and after this the ringing never went away.

"I didn't really know about the risk of loud music when I was young and I certainly never thought the ringing would stay with me forever. Looking back now, you'd think it would be common sense not to stand by the speakers, but I didn't even give it a second thought. I wish I had known the risks then.

"When I was 19 I was referred to the ENT department of a local hospital.

"Unfortunately, the doctor I saw was very dismissive, telling me there was no cure and I would just have to live with it."

And she has done just that, finding ways to deal with the effects of the condition.

"Twenty-five years after my first diagnosis, tinnitus continues to negatively affect me," Bronagh adds.

"At home, the ringing noise in my ears added to the background noise in the house means I find myself constantly having to ask my husband and children to repeat what they have said - which can get very frustrating for us all.

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Background noise: Bronagh with her husband Thomas and children Alexa, Blaine and Cason

Background noise: Bronagh with her husband Thomas and children Alexa, Blaine and Cason

Background noise: Bronagh with her husband Thomas and children Alexa, Blaine and Cason

"I always need the subtitles on when I'm watching TV as background music and sound in programmes affects my tinnitus and hearing.

"At school, tinnitus often makes it hard to hear what pupils are saying. Classrooms can be noisy places - even when everyone is silent there can be shuffling feet and pencil cases, chairs moving and the projector whirling."

Bronagh remembers a time when she actually thought she heard the sound of a fire alarm, only to realise that others in the vicinity were not reacting to what she believed was an emergency situation.

"My tinnitus is a static, hissing noise that's louder in my right ear than in my left," she explains.

"Sometimes it can get quite high pitched. Once I was at a local leisure centre with school. When we came out I heard what I thought was the fire alarm going off and I couldn't understand why people weren't evacuating. It was only when I got on the bus that I realised it was in my head.

"It's not like that all the time, it's generally worse at night, but I can hear it above the background noise of daily life."

In 2018, Bronagh got in touch with Action on Hearing Loss after seeing the charity's Don't Lose The Music campaign, which encourages Belfast concert goers to protect their hearing by wearing earplugs.

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Bronagh Lavery. Tinnitus feature.

Bronagh Lavery. Tinnitus feature.

Bronagh Lavery. Tinnitus feature.

Now, during Tinnitus Week, Bronagh wants to encourage others to turn the volume down and listen safely to protect their hearing.

"I think it's so important that people are raising awareness of the potential impact of listening to music at unsafe levels - just one night out and you could end up living with tinnitus every minute of every day for the rest of your life," she says.

"You may never get rid of it but you can find ways to cope."

Developing tinnitus caused Domnal McCormish (66), who lives in Newcastle with his wife Jasmin and has two children, Matthew (30) and Kirsty (27), to leave his job. Now, more than six years later, he has learnt to see the condition in a positive light and now volunteers with charity Action on Hearing Loss, sharing his experience to help others.

Domnal McCormish

“I used to be a marine engineer with an oil tanker company in the Merchant Navy and I was in the engine room for eight hours at a time, round the clock for six months,” he explains.

“We went around the world — the Persian Gulf, Australia, America — but I was in the engine room all the time. The noise was deafening. When I got off the ship I would hear the noise in my ears for two weeks. We used ear protection but we sometimes had to remove it to carry out the work or listen to the phones.

“When I finished I moved on to different jobs which were noisy too. My last job was doing grounds maintenance in Newcastle. I was using blowers and strimmers and chainsaws and that’s when the noise started to impact on me. The more I used the machinery, the more annoying it was getting. I found that when I was using the blower the tinnitus would start, so I ended up leaving the job.”

Domnal reveals how his condition progressed — and what happened when he sought medical help.

“I have suffered from permanent tinnitus since December 2012,” he says. “At first, I thought the faint hum was coming from an electronic device in my house, but then I realised it followed me everywhere I went.

“It was almost as if my awareness of the sound made it worse and before I knew it, the hum swelled into a constant drone — like a turbine — and it has been ringing in my left ear ever since.

“I went to my GP who referred me to an audiologist at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, who was very helpful. The audiologist gave me practical advice and put me in touch with the tinnitus officer at Action on Hearing Loss.

“She visited me at work and explained some of the methods you can use to manage tinnitus. She also suggested that a hearing aid might help. I ended up getting two hearing aids, which help mask the noise and distract me from the tinnitus.”

And after receiving assistance from the charity in learning how to deal with the condition, Domnal decided to see what he could do to help others.

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Domnal hiking in the mountains

Domnal hiking in the mountains

Domnal hiking in the mountains

“I attended a tinnitus course with Action on Hearing Loss where I learnt about causes of tinnitus and ways to deal with it,” he recalls.

“I started doing a bit of hearing aid maintenance on my own and I realised I could do it for Action on Hearing Loss as well because they gave me a lot of help.

“I’ve been volunteering for about two years now. I go to tinnitus talks with the charity’s tinnitus officer. Because I have tinnitus I can explain it. I know what I’m talking about which means that bit more.

“I recently volunteered at a tinnitus awareness event in Newcastle and a big crowd of around 50 people turned up. A lot of people out there have got tinnitus but they don’t realise that there is a place like Action on Hearing Loss which can help them cope with it.

“When people think of hearing problems they often think of older people but there were a lot of younger people at that meeting. Some had had their ears syringed and they found that tinnitus started after that.

“I find that people with tinnitus seem to be very negative but you have to treat it as being positive — if it’s getting worse then it means that you’re under stress and you should step back a bit and try and look after yourself better.

“You may never get rid of it but you can find ways to cope with it.”

Domnal shares some of the measures he uses to cope with his symptoms.

“Tinnitus is about your mind — you have to fill your mind with different things in order to alleviate the noise,” he says.

“If you’re thinking of something or looking at something you have to focus on that, especially if you’re trying to go to sleep when there is no noise to distract from the tinnitus. When you don’t hear it you need to make sure you don’t go looking for it.

“I find it hard to concentrate if I’m working on the computer or reading so I put the radio or TV on in the background. I play music in the car now which I didn’t used to do — I find that if I have it just below the volume of the tinnitus it gives me a lot of relief.”

He adds: “Remember, you’re not alone. There are a lot of people out there in the same boat as you, with the same foghorn blaring in their ears.

“Make the most of things that make you happy and take your mind off the pesky drone. For me, that’s spending time with family and friends, hillwalking and, most importantly, having a laugh.”

Around 275,000 people in NI have the condition and organisations are out there to help

Tinnitus is the name for hearing sound in one ear, both ears or in the head that doesn’t come from an external source, according to the charity Action on Hearing Loss.

And recent figures reported by the British Tinnitus Association revealed that more than one in eight people have the condition.

Action on Hearing Loss reports that 275,000 people in Northern Ireland have tinnitus to some degree, and at least 7,000 people have severe tinnitus which significantly affects their ability to lead a normal life.

The charity states that tinnitus can affect all ages, but it’s more common in older adults. It is rarely a sign of a serious disorder, but if you think you have it you should visit your GP.

Many people with the condition describe it as ‘ringing in the ears’ but they can also hear sounds like hissing, sizzling, buzzing, whooshing and white noise.

Action on Hearing Loss is raising awareness of tinnitus and the support on offer for people who have the condition during Tinnitus Week.

Claire Lavery, director, says: “It’s important that people know that there are lots of ways to manage tinnitus. Tinnitus can cause people to become stressed, anxious and confused but learning techniques and coping strategies can reduce the impact of the noise.

“Everyone’s tinnitus is different. It can take time to find the techniques that work best for you but there is support out there.

“Mindfulness, sound therapy and relaxation can all help to distract your mind from tinnitus and lessen its impact on your life.

“If you have a hearing loss, hearing aids can help mask the noise, or cognitive behaviour therapy can help change the way you react to tinnitus.”

Action on Hearing Loss has a tinnitus support service which offers one-to-one support for people living with tinnitus.

The charity also runs tinnitus management courses for people to learn about coping strategies and meet others with similar experiences.

To find out more, telephone 028 9023 9619, visit www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/tinnitusni or email information.nireland@hearingloss.org.uk. The Tinnitus Support Service is funded by the Health and Social Care Board.

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