When John Snow developed a whistling sound in his right ear, his GP blamed an infection that had left his eardrum inflamed and partly blocked his hearing. He was prescribed antibiotic drops and told the irritating noise would disappear within a few days, once the infection subsided. But when his ear did finally heal about a week later and his hearing had fully returned, 55-year-old John, from Little Canfield near Stansted in Essex, could still detect the relentless din. John had become one of the estimated five million Britons who suffer from tinnitus, a condition characterized by noise in the ears (often described as buzzing, whistling, humming or ringing), which has no obvious cause. What began as a minor irritation eventually took over his life as, for the next six years, John struggled to cope with the effects it had on his sleep, concentration and mood.
But thanks to mindful meditation, John's life is no longer dominated by the noises in his ear. The therapy works by training the brain to come to terms with the tinnitus, unlike other techniques that teach it to avoid the problem. The more the brain tries to fight the problem, the more it tunes into it. The meditation technique teaches patients to regularly stop and confront their thoughts and worries about the noise—and this appears to have the opposite effect. “Our aim is to help people acknowledge that they have the condition, that it won't cause them to lose their hearing and that what they can hear is actually harmless neuronal activity in the pathway from the ear to the brain,” says Jo Blaquiere, hearing therapist at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London, which has pioneered use of the mindful meditation therapy over the past two years. “It's not for everyone,” she adds, “but some people find it a powerful technique for coping.”
Psychologists and hearing specialists pioneering the therapy insist it’s not a cure for the underlying nerve damage in the inner ear that is responsible for tinnitus. But there is evidence that the new therapy may, over time, lead to changes in brain function that mean the patient eventually doesn't notice the tinnitus. In short, it is being reconditioned to accept tinnitus as normal. John was initially skeptical that consciously thinking about the tinnitus could actually make it go away. But having failed to respond to other therapies, including relaxation techniques, he persisted, meditating for 20 minutes a day. He’s glad he did. “This treatment has given me back my life and I feel deeply indebted to Jo and her team,” he says.