The unrelenting screeching sounds from tinnitus sometimes left actor William Shatner unsure "whether I would survive," while jazz guitarist Al Di Meola said tinnitus has meant living with "this screaming, and you can't shut it off." Little wonder the inability to silence the noise in their heads has led some sufferers to contemplate, and even commit suicide.
Shatner's tinnitus dates to the 1960s, when he stood too close to a special effects explosion while filming an episode of the legendary "Star Trek" TV series. "There were days when I didn't know whether I would survive, I was so tormented by the screeching in my head," the actor known for portraying Capt. James T. Kirk said in a public service video for the American Tinnitus Association. "The help they gave me literally saved my life."
An estimated 50 million Americans have some degree of tinnitus in one or both ears; 16 million of them have symptoms serious enough for them to see a doctor or hearing specialist. As many as 2 million become so debilitated by the unrelenting ringing, hissing, chirping, clicking, whooshing or screeching, that they cannot carry out normal daily activities, their lives "essentially ruined," said Jennifer Born, an ATA spokeswoman in Portland, Ore.
Of 9,000 patients who have come to the tinnitus clinic at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, clinic director Billy Martin said he was aware of eight who committed suicide. Most of the patients show up with insomnia, anxiety and depression, along with their tinnitus.
"The combination is extremely difficult to deal with," he said. "The load this places on people is beyond what any human was designed to endure."
Because tinnitus is most often triggered by noise, it represents an enormous occupational hazard for musical performers, at least 60 percent of whom report it occasionally, according to a 2007 ATA survey. Performers with tinnitus include rockers Neil Young, Eric Clapton and the Who's Pete Townshend, along with heavy metal's Ozzy Osbourne. In his July 25, 2010, "Ask Dr. Ozzy" column for the Sunday Times of London, Osbourne wrote: "I suffer from permanent tinnitus …, which means I've got this constant ringing in my ears, which has also made me somewhat deaf (or 'conveniently deaf,' as Sharon calls it). It's like this Whee!! noise in my head all the time. Should have worn earplugs, I guess."
GIs constitute another tinnitus-plagued group, their cases triggered not just by the aural assault of exploding roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices, but also by traumatic brain injuries suffered in those attacks, said Born, who traces her own tinnitus to "an Oasis concert when I was 15."
"If we look at payments for disability compensation for tinnitus ... the Veterans Administration will be paying out over $1 billion by the end of this year alone, a figure which is expected to double in the next few years," said Dr. Anthony Cacace, a tinnitus specialist at Wayne State University in Detroit whose research team received a $1.5 million grant from the Pentagon to study blast-induced tinnitus.
Although people typically associate tinnitus with deafness, it's actually a neurological problem that originates not in the ear, but in the brain, involving miscommunication between damaged sensory cells -- called hair cells, which line the cochlea, and the brain. People with severe tinnitus typically hear noise that doesn't exist except to them, much like an amputee perceives phantom pain from a missing limb. Because we live in an increasingly amplified world of turned-up car speakers, amplified concerts and iPod earbuds piping music directly into our ear canals, hearing experts warn about a flood of new cases in coming years, especially among the young and the wired.
Although Shatner's tinnitus started in adulthood, Di Meola said his began when he was just 7, and fell on his head in the driveway of his family's Bergenfield, N.J., home, fracturing his skull.
"Anyone who slams their head onto any kind of hard surface or pavement, you're going to hear ringing," he said in an interview early Wednesday from Turkey, where he had just performed on a world tour. "There's a percentage of people where it may eventually go away. For me, it persisted."
Di Meola, now 57, said his tinnitus has worsened. "I'm at a critical level, I don't know if I can stand it anymore. It's been getting scarier and scarier," he said. Although he does well while playing, his worst moments come "in a quiet room and no one is there. You can go insane."
Di Meola, who believes he had a genetic predisposition to tinnitus because his father and several uncles also had it, has seen many specialists. He's tried acupuncture, experimental stem cell treatments, and tried techniques "in which you hear other tones that take your attention off the one that's in your head." None worked for him.
Custom-made noise-reducing earplugs help when he attends others' concerts but interfere with what he needs to hear when he's onstage. He's taken several steps to protect his ears when he's onstage or in the recording studio. He plays more acoustic guitar than the electric guitar that made him famous as a member of "Return to Forever" with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. He puts up large Plexiglas screens to shield his ears from the loudness of snare drums. He turns monitors to face away from him.
But he's reached a point "where I may have to take a long period of time off to try and experiment with different types of therapies that are probably not going to do much, but I have to try it," he said, "because if this gets any worse, it's pretty much game over."
Despite the dark moments, though, he clings to "a ray of hope" that something will work. One experimental approach that could hold promise has worked so far in animals and is being tested in a small human trial in Belgium. It combines low-dose electrical brain stimulation through the vagus nerve with tones fed through ear phones. Together, these "cancel out the tinnitus signal," said Born.