Getting an Earful 

I have "tin ear," I think it is called, which is continuous ringing in my ears day and night. This affliction was brought on by either too many rowdy, good-time, light-my-fire rock concerts such as The Rolling Stones and Judas Priest, or by accompanying my wife to innumerable operas including Wagner, Puccini and Verdi. You can imagine our discussions on the topic. So, was it my rock-and-roll or her opera concerts that caused my "tin ear," and what must I do to rid myself of problem?

--Lonnie

Given the background detail in your question, I doubt you actually have a tin ear. That phrase is usually reserved to describe an inability to appreciate music (on the order of tone deafness)--a condition with which you are clearly not afflicted. Tin ear can also be used to describe a general insensitivity to other people's viewpoints (on the order of, say, our president). In your case, rejecting your wife's invitation to The Morrison Center for a night at The Big Easy could find you bedded down on the couch. As a compromise, why not skip the live performances altogether and simply rent Tommy? It's both rock and opera.

Not only would the rental bring a temporary suspension of musical hostilities, it would be especially fitting. The Who's Peter Townshend, the man who wrote "Pinball Wizard," shares the condition you nearly named correctly: tinnitus. Defined as perceiving sound in the absence of sound, tinnitus is the most common ear-related complaint in adults, leaving one of every 24 people to suffer the effects. Those effects aren't always the ringing sound you describe; often it may be a whooshing or rushing--somewhat like the sound sensed within a seashell. And the distraction caused by the relentless din can result in sleep deprivation, inability to concentrate, depression and other severe psychological problems.

Tinnitus may originate from medication reactions, including aspirin or chemotherapy drugs, by wax impaction, or even jaw misalignment--but, by far, the biggest culprit is noise-induced hearing loss. Loud, explosive or merely continuous noise can damage the inner ear's fragile hair cells that transmit vibrations to the brain. Once lost, these cells cannot regenerate and result in hearing loss of the higher frequencies, which happen to be largely the vocal range. One tinnitus theory postulates that without normal background noise (masking sounds) in those frequencies, the brain fills the silence on it's own, leading to a perception of non-existent sound.

Rock or opera, it doesn't matter; loud music (or any continuous noise) will damage your hearing. Contrary to advice heard around the residence hall, you cannot toughen up your ears by giving them high volume audio workouts. Measured in decibels (dB), normal conversation rates about 50dB, traffic at 85dB, a hair dryer 100dB, and a typical rock concert 120dB. Maximum exposure time before injury can be as little as 15 minutes at the level of the rock concert. Nearly the same intensity, 115dB, is also the highest volume setting for the Apple iPod. Not unexpectedly, this lead to a lawsuit filed earlier this year over hearing loss. To their credit, Apple acted swiftly to introduce software allowing users and parents to limit iPod volume. They could have simply employed the original method used by the old Sony Walkman: make high volume music sound just like announcements on a subway platform and no one would have a problem.

Once you're cursed with tinnitus, there aren't any easy answers. Limited success has been seen with hearing aids, sound masking techniques, behavioral therapies and in rare cases, surgery. In the alternative arena, little but anecdotal evidence exists for acupuncture, chiropractic or herbs. Zinc supplements, however, have shown some promise, but only when a deficiency exists (zinc deficiency is common, but excess zinc is dangerous--see your doctor before supplementing). It isn't much comfort to those suffering, but the best strategy remains to do all you can to avoid excessive noise before hearing loss, and associated tinnitus, can occur.

A good rule to follow is that if you can't speak at normal conversational volume, the background noise is too loud. When using headphones, if those around you can always hear your music, you may have a lifetime of trouble ahead. And for concert-goers or musicians themselves, special custom-made earplugs are now available that (unlike traditional earplugs) decrease all frequencies equally, still allowing you to fully enjoy the music. This last solution could be a hot seller at the next Rolling Stones concert. It's a perfect demographic fit considering their new tour sponsors: Ensure and Miracle-Ear.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send 8-track tapes and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).

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