The sound effect

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Tinnitus is a cruel but surprisingly common condition and teachers are particularly prone to it, says Hannah Frankel

The sound of silence can be particularly sweet for most teachers. After the school day, many find solace in peace and quiet far away from the noisy shrill of the lesson bell or the constant clattering of the canteen.

So, for people in the profession, tinnitus can be a fiendishly cruel condition. Defined as a constant "ringing in the ears", it can almost drive you insane.

It is also surprisingly common. About one in 10 British adults has experienced tinnitus lasting for more than five minutes, while one in 100 are severely affected, according to research carried out by the National Study of Hearing.

Approximately one in 200 say it has a significant impact on their ability to live a normal life, the equivalent of about 200,000 people in the UK.

But it's teachers, along with musicians and industrial workers, who are most prone to the condition. The TES Staffroom is brimming with teachers struggling to live and work with tinnitus. "I can't tolerate noise of any kind," says one poster. "The sound of a chair scraping the stone floor in the kitchen is appalling and the tinnitus is screaming in both ears."

Almost as many as 70 per cent of classroom teachers in pre-school and after-school programmes say that they are adversely affected by noise, according to a Danish study. The study also states that tinnitus is about twice as common among male teachers as among men in other professions.

Music teachers or design and technology teachers are particularly susceptible to noise levels which can damage their hearing. A music teacher in north-east Lincolnshire, who developed tinnitus following exposure to loud instruments, was awarded pound;40,000 in compensation after the National Union of Teachers took up his case two years ago.

Many others may be suffering in not-so-silent silence. Indeed, research from the National Study of Hearing reveals only 7 per cent of those with tinnitus have consulted their doctor.

The reluctance to visit a doctor may be partly explained by new research released by the RNID, which shows that 25 per cent of people with tinnitus initially think the noise is coming from their TV, traffic or noisy neighbours. In fact, 2,000 complaints about noise areJmade each year to the environmental health services by people who are unaware of their tinnitus.

Tinnitus can be caused by an ear infection, hearing loss, head injuries, a period of stress or for no identifiable reason. It can also come about from prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels, making teachers particularly vulnerable.

Studies have found that schools in England have average noise levels of 72 decibels - as loud as a busy road junction - but levels can get higher.

However, Dr Peter Tungland, a professional adviser for the British Tinnitus Association, says mental or physical predispositions are more likely to contribute to the condition than simply loud noise.

"Any person who is working where stress is a factor and there is a loss of confidence in their ability - day in, day out - will be more prone to tinnitus," he says.

"A teacher who likes to be in control and who craves calm and order can find a noisy classroom very stressful."

He believes information is essential to managing the condition. Not only is it empowering, but it also ensures the patient receives the right treatment.

"Some people are really desperate and it's made all the worse when they are misinformed. If they understand the cognitive aspect of their condition, they can get targeted therapy, which is pretty successful."


Visit your GP, who should refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

Possible treatment is habituation therapy, which can involve counselling, hearing aids or sound therapy.

Experiment with background noise, such as TV, radio or calming music. This should not be so loud as to cover the tinnitus, but enough to help you relax or sleep.

Develop a regular relaxation routine to help you manage the stress of tinnitus. Meditation, yoga or relaxation tapes can all help.

Keep yourself busy to distract yourself from the noise.

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