The Analogy between Tinnitus and Chronic Pain: A Phenomenological Approach


  • Norena Arnaud


  • Tinnitus
  • Chronic pain
  • Phenomenology
  • Lived experience
  • Perception
  • Sensation
  • Perception of time

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Tinnitus is an auditory sensation without external acoustic stimulation or significance, which may be lived as an unpleasant experience and impact the subject’s quality of life. Tinnitus loudness, which is generally low, bears no relation to distress. Factors other than psychoacoustic (such as psychological factors) are therefore implicated in the way tinnitus is experienced. The aim of this article is to attempt to understand how tinnitus can, like chronic pain, generate a ‘crisis’ in the process of existence, which may go as far as the collapse of the subject. The main idea put forward in the present article is that tinnitus may be compared to the phenomenon of pain from the point of view of the way it is experienced. Although the analogy between tinnitus and pain has often been made in the literature, it has been limited to a parallel concerning putative physiopathological mechanisms and has never really been explored in depth from the phenomenological point of view. Tinnitus is comparable to pain inasmuch as it is felt, not perceived: it springs up (without intention or exploration), abolishes the distance between the subject and the sensation (there is only a subject and no object), and has nothing to say about the world. Like pain, tinnitus is formless and abnormal and can alter the normal order of the world with maximum intensity. Finally, tinnitus and pain enclose the subject within the limits of the body, which then becomes in excess. Tinnitus may be a source of suffering, which affects not only the body but a person’s very existence and, in particular, its deployment in time. Plans are thus abolished, so time is no longer ‘secreted’, it is enclosed in an eternal present. If the crisis triggered by tinnitus is not resolved, the subject may buckle and collapse (depression) when their resources for resisting are depleted. The path may be long and winding from the moment when tinnitus emerges to when it assaults existence and its eventual integration into a new existential norm where tinnitus is no longer a source of disturbance.

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