TV's Jamie Laing: I searched my house for the buzzing noise... but it was in my head
A reality TV star on how he was struck by the tinnitus torment that blights more than seven million people in the UK
WAKING up one morning to an annoying high-pitched buzzing noise, Jamie Laing wondered where it was coming from.
"I went around the house searching for it," recalls Jamie (31), star of the Channel 4 reality show Made In Chelsea and founder of the confectionery company Candy Kittens.
"But I couldn’t find anything that was making the noise – and then I realised that it was coming from inside my head.
"The noise sounded like a static buzz of a television in another room. Once I’d started to hear it, the constant humming remained in my head."
The intrusive sounds bothered Jamie so much that next day he went to his GP, who diagnosed tinnitus – the often debilitating sensation of hearing a sound that doesn’t have an external source, which affects more than seven million people in the UK.
Some people hear ringing, others whooshing, humming or buzzing – even hear the sound of a jet engine, a drill or buzzing bees. It can be continuous or sporadic and has the potential to be debilitating.
"My GP said there were a number of possible causes but exposure to loud music in nightclubs was the most likely one in my case," says Jamie, who is dating fellow Made In Chelsea star Sophie 'Habbs’ Habboo (26).
"My GP explained there was no cure, but it would probably go away eventually on its own as I got used to it. There were treatments available to help me come to terms with it, until it did," says Jamie.
"At first I couldn’t believe I could have tinnitus, I thought it only affected older people or people who were exposed to loud bangs – but it’s more common than people think. I’d been to festivals and concerts and listened to music on headphones – the louder the better when I was younger.
"But I’d never stood next to the speakers at concerts, or been in a band – I’d probably been to a few too many festivals where the music was loud and never worn ear plugs.
"I wish I had now – protecting your ears against loud noise is so important."
Tinnitus is, in fact, a symptom, not a condition – and there is always an underlying cause, explains consultant ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon John Phillips.
"The most common cause is hearing loss – the less you can hear externally, the more you will hear internally as your brain turns up its central volume dial, meaning that you hear things that you wouldn’t normally hear," says Mr Phillips, who is a medical adviser to the British Tinnitus Association.
"It’s the brain’s way of filling in the gap in information coming to it from the ears." This is why tinnitus is most common in older people with age-related hearing loss.
But younger people can also experience hearing loss – and tinnitus – due to exposure to loud music, a noisy workplace or, less commonly, to the side-effects of drugs including certain antibiotics, chemotherapy and aspirin at very high doses.
Even the hearing loss associated with ear wax and ear infections can lead to tinnitus.
"We see fewer people with occupational hearing damage because of the decline in heavy industry – but these are being replaced by those who listened to loud rock music in the 60s and 70s, and younger people who go to gigs or listen to loud music on headphones," says Mr Phillips.
"We know that children suffer from tinnitus: one study found around 40 per cent of children with glue ear reported a ringing sound in their ears when asked."
A common myth is that nothing can be done to help the condition. "There’s no pill or operation to fix tinnitus, but that doesn’t mean there’s no treatment at all," says Mr Phillips.
Treating hearing loss with a hearing aid can help. More treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling to manage stress levels – as stress exacerbates symptoms. Listening to distracting noises, such as a radio, can also help.
The good news is that for the vast majority, symptoms will improve and sometimes disappear completely. But an estimated 0.5 per cent of the UK population (around 320,000 people) will have persistent tinnitus, which interferes with their daily lives.
However, their difficulties may not always be taken seriously, suggests David Stockdale, chief executive of the British Tinnitus Association. "Everyone has probably experienced short-term ringing in their ears at some point after going to a loud concert or club and so people tend to think of tinnitus as a short-term issue.
"But it’s entirely different when it’s a long-term, persistent problem you have to live with. It doesn’t help that when people see their GP about tinnitus they are often told they’ll just have to learn to live with it – which ramps up their anxiety levels, making the tinnitus worse."
Mr Stockdale says an estimated one million GP appointments a year are due to tinnitus, "yet there seems to be a real lack of awareness about treatments, both among GPs and the public’.
Four years on, Jamie’s tinnitus has persisted, leading to some dark days along the way.
"The ringing in my ears made me anxious and depressed and the tinnitus became worse as I focused on it," he says.
"At its worst, it really interfered with everyday life. Listening to the TV and having conversations was difficult and I struggled at work, too. The more you think about it the worse it gets until the tinnitus almost becomes deafening."
He found the first six months after diagnosis particularly distressing and would sleep with his phone playing white noise to help him sleep. "There were moments when I thought 'I don’t know how people get through this'," he says. "You have to do your work, see your friends and all the time you have this distracting noise in your head – it was very lonely."
Jamie saw several doctors hopeful of a quick fix. However, once he accepted there was no cure, he turned his attention to coping strategies.
A test revealed slight hearing loss but not sufficient to warrant a hearing aid. So Jamie began to use meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy, exercise and sleep to ease his anxiety.
"It gets louder if I’m tired, stressed or anxious and so I have to manage all that, but I’m getting better at it," he says. "I also cut out caffeine as it made me anxious, which seemed to heighten the tinnitus. I also use ear plugs made to protect my ears from further damage from loud noise when I go to festivals or nightclubs," says Jamie.
"But the best advice I got was from a doctor who told me: 'Jamie, I promise you this will get better.' Just hearing that made me less anxious and better able to cope."
As a result he’s keen to reassure others who are affected.
"My message is that tinnitus will get better: it may not disappear but you’ll learn to cope with it. It’s like any loud noise – be it crickets in a hot country or air conditioning in a hotel bedroom – after a while your brain gets accustomed to it and blocks it out."
The British Tinnitus Association is campaigning for more funding for research and to encourage people to wear filtered ear plugs when exposed to loud noise such as at rock concerts (which can cause damage – without ear protection – within minutes).
"Young people need to realise that they must protect their ears," warns Jamie. "Just turn down your headphones, get some ear plugs and stand away from the speakers at gigs. I really wish I had."
:: Visit tinnitus.org.uk
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