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Jacqui Furneaux explores TINNITUS, it’s possible causes and preventative measures that motorcyclists can take.

A few years ago, an eye-catching headline in a London newspaper read “Killed by tinnitus”. It went on to describe how a 42-year-old tinnitus sufferer committed suicide because of his condition. It had become so intolerable to him, he hanged himself. Thankfully this is a very rare occurrence, and is usually accompanied by an underlying depressive condition.

So what is tinnitus and why is this article on a motorcycling website?

Let’s start with explaining what tinnitus actually is. The word comes from the Latin for ‘ringing’. For most sufferers, this is how the condition presents…ringing in the ears. Others experience buzzing or whistling, sometimes all three. You know the sort of thing…after a loud concert, there’s a ringing in your ears that goes after a while.

With tinnitus, it doesn’t go. It may or may not be associated with a degree of hearing loss. The noises may be hardly noticeable or of a more obtrusive nature. It’s an individual condition and most people with tinnitus find methods to live with it. People who dwell around Everest are so enchanted by these ‘magic’ noises, they consider tinnitus to be a privilege. This positive attitude is the key to coping with what can otherwise be an unwelcome intrusion.

According to literature provided by the British Tinnitus Association, 10% of the population has mild tinnitus all the time. When noise to which we are subjected or choose is measured, it’s not surprising. The levels of noise which are considered to be capable of doing damage to the hair cells surround us all the time in our daily lives. Noise is measured in decibels (dBA). The louder the noise, the less time one can be exposed to it without causing damage. Here are some everyday sounds and the decibels associated with them… 

Tinnitus-graphAlthough the precise cause of tinnitus is not fully understood, there are factors which are known to be instrumental to it: age, ear disease, blows to the head, stress, compacted earwax, jaw joint dysfunction and aspirin overuse can all be contributing factors.

But loud noise is thought to be by far the most likely cause and this is where motorcycling comes in. Without getting too deep into anatomical detail, loud and continued noise has a damaging effect on the pathway of thousands of hair cells (called cilia) in the inner ear. The wafting of these tiny receptor hairs is essential to the transmission of external sound signals to the auditory nerve and hence to the brain which, without the signal, seems to make up sounds for itself. These sounds are called tinnitus.

Now, it’s not the noise of the motorcycle engine that’s the problem. It’s the airflow vibration around the rider’s helmet that does the damage.

Be aware, that if you worked in a factory, legally, your employer must provide ear protection in the workplace if sound levels exceed 85 dBA.

So, consider that at 40mph ‘wind noise’ generates 85-90 dBA, which is deemed ‘safe’ for up to eight hours; at 100mph and 110 dBA the ‘safe’ exposure time reduces to about three minutes… 

Given that most riders will exceed the safe limits and exposure times apart from short, urban journeys, the only sensible thing to do is to wear ear protection to stop wind noise causing problems. Whatever type you choose it’s important that they are comfortable and fit well.

Don’t worry that you won’t be able to hear traffic warnings, sirens and the like. Research and personal experience shows that at speeds over 45mph, the elimination of the wind noise by using earplugs actually makes these sounds more distinguishable. Engine purring sounds better when wearing them and the rush of wind is less distracting, even when wearing an open-face helmet.

You can spend as much money as you like on earplugs. They all do the job for which they are intended as long as they fit well. There are all sorts on the market from squidgy foam ones to very expensive individually moulded, custom-made ones with provision for use of mobile phones, music players or rider/pillion communication systems.

The manufacturers claim these are more comfortable and are better for people with a large ear-canal as smaller ones may not be easily retrieved after use. They fit flatter to the head too, a distinct advantage when putting on a helmet. ‘Off the shelf’ ones which protrude may be dislodged when putting on the helmet.

Squidgy foam earplugs are the cheapest and are available from chemists, DIY outlets and the internet. If you use them, make sure they go right into the ear canal. Roll them between finger and thumb first. Lifting the upper part of the external ear when you insert one can help line up the ear canal for an effective fit. You’ll know when you’ve got it right. They are cheap enough to replace regularly to reduce the risk of introducing infection into the ear. So don’t keep the same pair for years when they’ve been rolling around an oily workshop floor or are covered in unspeakable dirt and fluff from your motorcycle jacket pocket!
Boots sell sticky gel ones which are very comfortable and effective but if you have long hair are a nuisance as it sticks to the gel on inserting and removing them.

Alpine make the “Moto Safe” ear plugs. They are not too expensive, are cleanable and really do fit well. If they are too wide or long you can carefully trim them. They are like a double mushroom shape and come with a wee applicator to help get them accurately in place. The flexible thermoplastic material is very thin and adapts to the shape of the ear canal. They come with a choice of two filters for hearing ambient noises.
The people at Ascent (suppliers of the  Alpine Moto Safe) are also getting involved in a move to lobby politicians to get warning stickers put on new motorcycles at the point of sale advising the new owner to purchase earplugs. Perhaps these should be put on new helmets as well.

At the upper end are manufacturers such as Ultimate Ear. This British company produce a wide range of custom fitted and made products aimed at very different uses from Musicians and Swimmers through the Military and Aviation to Shooters and Motorcyclists. They even supplied Charley Boorman with a set of their ‘SoundEar‘ plugs to be used on the ‘Long Way Down’ television series he recorded some years back with Ewan McGregor.

An informal survey of motorcycle riders reveals that most admitted to a degree of tinnitus and/or hearing loss but that they attribute this to age or rock concerts rather than motorcycling. Very few regularly use earplugs. Younger riders are more likely to wear them. Our advice is pretty simple: just as you would put a seat-belt on before driving off in the car, get into the habit of putting in your earplugs every time before riding off on your bike!

If, on reading this, you identify that you may have this condition, don’t despair. In the first instance see your GP who will examine your ears to check for infection, build-up of wax or any other abnormality. You may then be referred to an Ear, Nose and Throat and/or Audiology Department and be seen by specialist staff there. A hearing test and appointment with a specialist audiologist usually follows referral which can determine whether your condition is caused by excessive noise, age or something else. The audiologist will talk you through the condition and give advice on how best to tackle it. Specialist equipment can be bought or hired which some people find useful such as boxes that emit sea waves sounds, and forest birdsong or ‘white noise’ to mask the tinnitus. Pillows which soothe at bedtime are also available to lull one off to sleep when the tinnitus may be louder than ambient house sounds. Very helpful information is available from the British Tinnitus Association which has a Freephone helpline 0800 018 0527.

Check out our reviews of Motorcycling Earplugs!
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