Education in recent decades has taken on a cautionary role for children. Teachers tell first-year infants that they must not cross the road without looking and older boys and girls are warned about the hazards of drugs, solvents or unprotected sex. Yet amid all this hardly a word is said about taking care of their precious sense of hearing – and the treasures of internal silence.
Without diminishing the value of other advice, it should be appreciated by parents and teachers that the statistical risk of getting tinnitus is greater than that for Aids, road deaths or unwanted pregnancies. While countless parents of stricken teenagers with permanent head noises regret that they did nothing to persuade their children to take care of their ears as well as the rest of their bodies, the voice of school-based authority remains silent.
There is no formal provision for including tinnitus in classroom health education. Neither the Department of Education nor the local education authorities recognize the problem for the millions of young people for whom they have a responsibility. Such is the general indifference among teachers, that schools blithely organize end-of-term discos where the sounds, though not quite in the category of the club disco or rock concert, will edge into the real danger zone of 90-plus decibels and threaten health.
In the absence of any official action by education leaders, some local tinnitus self-help groups have taken the initiative and supplied schools with teaching packs to explain what tinnitus is and how young people can to some extent protect themselves. One difficulty is convincing youngsters that tinnitus, so closely associated with deafness in some minds, is not confined to pensioners with hearing-aids.
While pop music boasts of creating aptly-named walls of sound, the safety warning is that it is dangerous to hit one’s head against a wall, real or sonic.
As with many other medical conditions, both nurture and nature are said to be the cause of tinnitus. If toddlers can tell their parents about it, does the cause go back further to the process of birth or during the baby’s time in the womb?
Many forms of deafness are known to be hereditary. As the onset of hearing loss and tinnitus can be experienced simultaneously at any age, can tinnitus be inherited? There are few statistics to support the belief that it can be. Moreover, as the scientific cause of head sounds itself remains seemingly light years from discovery, a convincing case cannot yet be made out that heredity has anything to do with it. It could be that a weakness in the intricate auditory system, which is considered less remarkable when it occurs in old age, is simply the premature fate of a child. The wide and still vague label of ‘nature’ can therefore be attached to infant cases, to await further explanation.
And does it start in the womb? For years people with good hearing and an even better memory have told how they can recall the steady sound-sensations of their own heart beats before birth. This cannot easily be dismissed as pure imagination, as a baby in the first minutes of life has a brain able to function on a basic level. It has been proved that babies are responsive to sounds before birth.
Was it therefore vulnerable to loud noises which perhaps threatened its cosy safety and physically disturbed its hearing mechanisms, causing early tinnitus? If so, could, for instance, the raised voices of arguing parents, or a radio turned up too loudly, be blamed? As with so many areas of tinnitus study, there is no proof that this occurs, but the idea is attracting serious research in Belgium and Prance.
When a stricken child reaches school age the problems multiply. She has probably by then more or less adapted to the condition in her own way, maybe unaware that most people are without it. In the challenging environment of school she soon finds that she is different from her new friends. The psychological stress this can create, to say nothing of trying to hear what a teacher is saying while coping with her own sounds, call for expert handling in the form of child counseling. At the same time, teachers have to guard against slowness in learning caused by tinnitus being taken as a sign of lack of intelligence. The young sufferer faces a lifetime of handicap. She needs to have parents and teachers able to grasp, as well as any non-sufferers can, the unrelenting burden even the youngest may be called upon to bear.