Electronic Noise and Tinnitus

The Silent Front
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This article is in direct response to a detailed email I received recently from a sophisticated technology user who suffers from tinnitus. The writer, Richard, refers specifically to electronic noise from second generation Intel SSDs triggering his tinnitus symtoms in such an upsetting way that he was compelled to seek help from Intel directly. The kind of electronic noise Richard describes is not normally audible to most people, but there is little question that it is all around us, emanating from just about every type of electronic gizmo that is part and parcel of modern living.

Tinnitus is a term that has come up repeatedly at SPCR over the years. It is a complex condition that we have never really explored before, but some significant percentage of SPCR visitors are tinnitus sufferers. It is most often described as a "ringing in the ears in the absence of sound." The American Tinnitus Association estimates that in the US alone, some 50 million people are afflicted in one way or another.

Where's the ringing coming from?

This ATA article (PDF) goes to some lengths in trying to answer the question, "What is Tinnitus?" Some key paragraphs are quoted here:


"A sound no one else hears In almost every case, tinnitus is a totally subjective noise — one that only the person who has it can hear. In rare cases, when the tinnitus is caused by an abnormality in a vein or artery and is in rhythm with the heartbeat, the sound may be audible through a stethoscope placed on the neck or directly in the ear canal.

"A symptom In and of itself, tinnitus is not a disease. It is like pain — a signal that something has gone wrong somewhere.

"A worry Tinnitus can be very upsetting. In a way, that’s not surprising. Richard Salvi’s and Alan Lockwood’s brain imaging research in the late 1990s showed that in some subjects, tinnitus involves the limbic system — the brain’s emotional center. Our brains seem wired to interpret constant loud noise — chronic pain and vertigo too — as something to be upset about.

"Since tinnitus is a symptom of something that has gone wrong, that something might need medical attention, such as an acoustic neuroma (a tumor on the auditory nerve). In those cases, the tinnitus is doing a job — that is, alerting the patient to a bigger problem. In most cases, though, the tinnitus trips that warning switch in error, and the person with tinnitus feels alarmed and anxious because of it.

"Continuous; Variable For some people, tinnitus is a steady, unchanging noise every waking minute. For others, it is a sound that comes and goes, or a tone that changes pitch through the day. Some have tinnitus that’s “on” for three days and “off” for one day. The majority of people who contact us have constant, unvarying tinnitus.

"Loud At least it seems loud. For the majority (83.8%) of 1,422 patients at the Oregon Hearing Research Center, the tinnitus volume was 0-9 decibels above their hearing threshold. That’s very quiet. But if that “quiet” tinnitus is very high pitched, it might not be masked by lower-pitched sounds in the environment. That could make the tinnitus seem louder than the few decibels it really is.

"Intrusive This is the kind we hear about the most, which makes sense to us. People who aren’t terribly troubled by their tinnitus generally don’t call us for help. Constant, intrusive sound can disrupt sleep, family relationships, and one’s ability to work and concentrate. When tinnitus is at this level, medical and audiological care are probably in order. It is also imperative that people with tinnitus find a way to get restful sleep. It’s an important key in gaining control of the condition.

"Often louder after waking up This is a very common experience, although researchers have not yet gotten to the root of it. We know that the brain is very active in a sleep state, not still at all. We also know that the brain experiences electrical and chemical changes during sleep that it doesn’t experience while awake. If you experience the phenomenon of temporarily elevated tinnitus following sleep, you are in good (although slightly perturbed) company.

"Misunderstood, dismissed “Go home and learn to live with it.” I cringe at these words. And we know they’re being said with baffling regularity. Our battle cry to health professionals is this: NEVER tell patients to go home and learn to live with it — unless you tell them how to live with it. We now offer an educational course for health professionals that we hope will help turn that tide.

"Nondiscriminatory Men get it. Women get it. Even children get it. Education levels or income levels are not predictors. Excessive noise exposure is the most common tinnitus cause, but it doesn’t matter if the noise is from a rock concert, farm machinery, or artillery fire. Noise is noise; ears are ears. Those whose ears are susceptible to excessive noise are those most likely to be hurt by it.

"Manageable Tinnitus is caused by many things: ear-damaging drugs, jaw misalignment, Ménière’s disease, head injury, in rare cases a tumor on the auditory nerve. The most common culprit is excessive noise exposure. But regardless of its cause, tinnitus can be relieved — sometimes on the spot — by sound therapy. Here is the reason: A steady, low-level, broadband sound, like that of rainfall, can reduce the contrast between the patient’s internal noise and the sometimes too-quiet external world. [Emphasis mine.] Sound therapies, commonly called masking and tinnitus retraining therapy, can make tinnitus less noticeable and, for a lot of people, less troubling. Other treatments, including medications, biofeedback, relaxation techniques, and a particular type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy, are helpful too."

The emphasized text in the last paragraph is highly relevant at SPCR: With today's best quiet computer gear and our knowhow, we can build systems that are truly silent, barely at the threshhold of hearing in most environments. The catch is that for some tinnutus sufferers, if the component in such systems produce electronics noise that triggers their symptoms, these systems may actually be worse than noisier PCs that have higher broadband noise (from smoothly blowing fans).

I have personally experienced occasional tinnitus effects, usually during periods of extreme fatigue due to physical, emotional and/or mental stress. Overworking with little sleep sometimes brought it on as well. At such times, it seems that my silent PCs are not helping, and the electronic noise (from modems, routers, LCD monitors or even CFLs) I hear more plainly as a result of my quiet environment seems to further emphasize the ringing tone of tinnitus. This is an issue that the AMA article touches upon.

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