Just months after giving birth, a woman began to experience a constant ringing in her ears, which has now lasted for three years.
After giving birth to son Eddie, now four, Rhiannon Whybra was on her way to meet a friend when her ears started to ring.
“It was just a normal day like any other. I was driving to pick up a friend who was coming to stay with us, when all of a sudden, my ears started ringing,” Whybra says.
“It wasn’t very loud, but it was just enough for me to notice it. Initially I thought: ‘It will go away soon, people get ringing in their ears from time to time.’ But it never did.
“The more I listened out for it, the louder it felt. The only time I could escape it was when I slept – but lying in bed was when the noise was at its most noticeable, so that was very distressing.”
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Whybra, of Ticehurst, East Sussex, was eventually diagnosed with tinnitus - which the NHS describes as “hearing noises that are not caused by sounds coming from the outside world”.
“The sound was a constant pitch all the time, but when I got anxious, it would become unbearably loud – almost like it was screaming at me,” Whybra adds. “And because the volume went up, it made me even more anxious. It was a vicious cycle.”
It is not always clear what causes the condition – which leads people to hear sounds like ringing, buzzing, humming, and even music – but it has been linked to hearing loss, anxiety, depression and certain medications.
“In my case, I was a bit of a party animal in my teens and early twenties. I’d go out clubbing most weekends, so doctors wondered whether the damage was done then,” Whybra explains.
“But nobody knows why it flared up all those years later. It is possible it was triggered by my pregnancy, but doctors have no way of being certain.
"To this day, I’ve never got a definitive answer. It can be quite confusing if you don’t know what caused it and how to fix it. There needs to be a lot more research into the causes of tinnitus.”
Returning to work post-maternity leave in 2018 was a “welcome distraction” for Whybra, as the office noise drowned out the tinnitus.
“In that louder environment, it felt like the tinnitus was fighting to get my attention – but then I became used to the humdrum and it drowned it out,” Whybra recalls.
“I remember feeling very anxious before I left, in case it would feel loud when I was outside. Now, if I go for drinks and dinner, and if I need to go outside for a bit to calm the tinnitus, I will. My friends and husband have been so supportive.”
So far, Whybra has tried acupuncture and hypnotherapy to help ease the condition, but to no avail. At the end of 2019 she began counselling and has found solace in yoga, too.
While Whybra has “come to terms” with her condition, she says it has taken its toll on her mental health, as well as her relationships with her youngest son Eddie, elder son Toby, 10, and husband Ashley, 39.
“At times, it felt like the tinnitus was standing between me and my family. I could see Eddie, Toby and Ashley right there, but it felt like I couldn’t reach them – like a basketball player blocking another player.
“The love and affection I gave them remained the same, but I felt disconnected.”
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Whybra has also joined the BTA’s befriender scheme, which pairs new sufferers of the condition with people who have had it for a while.
“At first, the tinnitus was controlling my life, whereas now I control the tinnitus,” Whybra says. “Some days, I hardly notice it at all. It just fades into the background while I get on with my daily life.
“Now, I actually see my ears as a kind of barometer: they tell me if I need to slow down or take it easy.”
David Stockdale, chief executive of the British Tinnitus Association, says: “Research has found that tinnitus is much more common in women during pregnancy than in those that are not pregnant, but there hasn’t been any studies into whether this is also the case in the postpartum period.
“Whether a person’s tinnitus is caused by physical changes experienced during pregnancy; by the stress, anxiety and sleepless nights that can go hand-in-hand with early motherhood; or by something else entirely, the most important thing is that people who are struggling seek support to help them manage their tinnitus.”
The British Tinnitus Association has produced a film that brings to life the sounds of tinnitus for people who cannot imagine what it sounds like – visit www.tinnitus.org.uk/share-our-film to watch it, or for more information about the condition.
Additional reporting by PA.