Dr. Jerilyn Dutton, owner of Salient Sounds Audiology, first noticed the problem during a hospital stay when she was 6 years old.
Doctors had removed the lymph nodes on the left side of her neck, but the incision site became badly infected, so they administered the antibiotic Gentamicin.
“I thought the hospital equipment was making that long beeep noise,” the audiologist recalled.
When she arrived home, the equipment was gone, but the noise wasn’t.
“I remember wondering if it was the air conditioning,” she said, “but then it was constant no matter where I went.”
Dutton chose to make a career of helping people cope with tinnitus, and other hearing difficulties, because she copes with them herself.
“I think it gives me a unique perspective on meeting people where they need it,” she said. “I understand what they’re going through.”
Tinnitus — experienced to some degree by 50 million Americans — is an indication of some sort of change happening between the ear and the brain. (In Dutton’s case, the antibiotic damaged the outer hair cells of her cochlea.) The ear still sends its signals to the brain, but now they indicate that damage has occurred.
“Some people say it sounds like a high-pitch beep or like crickets,” Dutton said. “Some say it’s like a roaring or a wave crashing. It’s whatever your brain fills in the gaps with.”
Cochlear damage can also result from prolonged exposure to loud noises, certain medical conditions and infection.
Throughout childhood, Dutton recalled, quiet places like libraries were very frustrating, filled with what seemed like “the loudest ringing in the world.” Yet no one else ever heard it, so she couldn’t explain her suffering. After a while, she said, she even stopped asking doctors about it.
The biggest issue with tinnitus is that the more you focus on it, the louder and more noticeable it becomes, and thus the more you focus on it.
“It’s just a constant cycle of frustration,” said the native Georgian, who wasn’t diagnosed until she attended grad school for audiology at UC San Diego.
Dutton underwent an earlier incarnation of the same tinnitus retraining she administers to her patients today.
“You train your brain to just disengage from it,” she explained. “My tinnitus is something that’s there and I can find it and bring it to the surface if I try to. But, 99 percent of my day, I no longer hear or attend to it. It’s just like my little friend.”
The training involves environmental sound therapies — many of which are now phone app-based — and teaching your brain how to reclassify the ringing through treatment such as meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy, which she refers her patients out for. “We try to give people many different options to see what works for them,” Dutton said.
Dutton also offers a full range of audiology services including diagnosing and treating hearing loss and auditory processing disorders, and placing and adjusting hearing aids.
“My philosophy is that hearing care is health care,” she said. “By treating hearing loss, you slow down the rate of cognitive decline, you slow down the rate of progression of hearing change, and you preserve those pathways from the ear to the brain in a much more effective way than if you go the same amount of time without treating that loss.”
In other words, use it or lose it.
“That’s why, when you get knee surgery, they make you stand up and walk immediately,” Dutton said. “If certain pathways break, they won’t ever repair themselves.”
Salient Sounds Audiology & Hearing Clinic is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 7759 Herschel Ave., Suite B, La Jolla. On Wednesdays, Dr. Dutton performs home visits. (858) 230-6440. salientsounds.com
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