Ailments of Aging Rock Stars: Metallica Drummer with Hearing Problem

CNN is reporting that heavy metal band Metallica drummer, Lars Ulrich, has another common ailment of the aging rock star: ringing in his ears- medically called tinnitus. According to Ulrich, 46, “I’ve been playing loud rock music for the better part of 35 years. I never used to play with any kind of protection.” Now the drummer has a constant ringing in his ears, “It never sort of goes away. It never just stops.” Ulrich noticed the problem after several long, loud tours with Metallica. Once he learned about the problem, he started wearing hearing protection, but worries about what he calls the “iPod generation”, who listen to a lot of loud music through earpieces. “If you get a scratch on your nose, in a week that’ll be gone,” Ulrich said. “When you scratch your hearing or damage your hearing, it doesn’t come back. I try to point out to younger kids … once your hearing is gone, it’s gone, and there’s no real remedy.”

Cochlea inner-ear

The Inner Ear and Close-Up of Hair Cells

What is Tinnitus? Tinnitus is the sound of ringing in the ears that is present all the time. It can also be described as a roaring, hissing, or clicking sound. It is estimated that 50 million people in the U.S. have tinnitus. People with severe tinnitus may have trouble hearing, working or even sleeping. Tinnitus is usually worse at night, when the absence of daytime noises makes it more obvious.

Most tinnitus comes from damage to the microscopic endings of the hearing nerve in the inner ear. The inner ear is made of of two parts:the semicircular canals, which are important for balance, and the cochlea, a snail shell shaped organ which is responsible for hearing sounds. The cochlea is filled with a watery liquid, which moves in response to the vibrations coming from the middle ear via the oval window. As the fluid moves, thousands of “hair cells” are set in motion, and convert that motion to electrical signals that are communicated via neurotransmitters to many thousands of nerve cells.

What Causes Tinnitus?

* Hearing loss: Doctors and scientists have discovered that people with different kinds of hearing loss also have tinnitus.
* Loud noise: Too much exposure to loud noise can cause noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus. Loud music is not the only culprit. Single, loud jarring sounds, such as explosions or gunshots can also cause it. The military is apparently generating a lot of new tinnitus patients.
* Medications: More than 200 medicines can cause tinnitus. If you have tinnitus and you take medicine, ask your doctor or pharmacist whether your medicine could be involved.
* Other health problems: Allergies, tumors, excess earwax, and problems in the heart and blood vessels, jaws, and neck can cause tinnitus.

Is there a Cure for Tinnitus?

Unless the tinnitus is caused by another health problem, such as ear wax, medication, or allergies, there is no cure for tinnitus. Research is ongoing. Prevention is the best medicine here.

How Can I Protect My Hearing?

* Wear hearing protectors, especially if you must work in an excessively noisy environment. You should also wear them when using power tools, noisy yard equipment, or firearms, or riding a motorcycle or snowmobile. Hearing protectors come in two forms: earplugs and earmuffs.
* Turn down the iPod or other music device. If someone else nearby can hear your music, it’s too loud.

For more information:

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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