Earworms and Multiple Sclerosis

Earworms and Multiple Sclerosis
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Engaging Thoughts
Sometimes they are called “sticky songs,” better known by their common name “earworms.” Earworms are those musical phrases that get stuck in our head that we hear over and over. It’s much like those worms underground that burrow and twist and turn, constantly finding new territory to inhabit. For most people, that’s no big deal, and it can even be entertaining to hear a song over and over for a short period of time. Eventually, the earworm moves on and the music stops. No harm done.

In my case, I’ve had at least a year with persistent earworms, and they are annoyingly constant from when I wake until I fall asleep. I’ve read about ways to break the pattern and drive them away, but nothing works permanently. Even as I am typing this article, the earworms are creeping around and playing a tune from a recent commercial I heard on television. At least the commercial is a break from my usual earworm, a passage from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I must note that earworms aren’t necessarily songs you are attracted to, repeating over and over because you like them. I detest “Battle Hymn” particularly because conquering heathens doesn’t fit my personal philosophy of “live and let live.”

They’re escaping!

The other day my daughter was looking at me with a quizzical look, and I had to pause and ask what she was thinking. Her response was she was trying to figure out what song was stuck in my head because she couldn’t figure it out. Her explanation: “I can usually tell what song you are humming, but not this one.” I didn’t even know I had been humming aloud. There are times that even the dogs stop and look at me as I’m making these sounds; I can never tell if they are amused or perplexed. So now my earworms aren’t content to just live in my brain, they are escaping through my mouth and making themselves known to others.

Singing a different song out loud breaks the earworm, but only temporarily. And I can’t be like a jukebox and change the song playing in my head at will. I can be intentionally singing with a song and when I stop, the band strikes up the “Battle Hymn” in my head. I know a couple of other people with MS who also talk about earworms, but none with the maddening persistence mine have developed into.

The MS connection

What does this have to do with my MS? That’s exactly the question I am asking: Could this be a manifestation of this disease? I find just a few scientific reviews of this question of earworms and MS, but nothing definitive. There is a very interesting, easy-to-read study titled “Recurrent refrains in a patient with multiple sclerosis: Earworms or musical hallucinations?” from the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, MS Center of Excellence, that talks about the case of a 54-year-old woman with progressive MS who was also cursed with these repeating musical phrases. In her case, her sleep was even interrupted. I regularly go to sleep hearing these tunes and wake up to them, but fortunately, they don’t stop me from sleeping. Picture this, though: If I happen to wake for the restroom, I have noticed myself sitting on the toilet and humming.

I don’t think of myself as being a rare example of anything; there have to be many others who experience the same thing. I’m putting this out there because I wonder if there are others besides me and this poor woman in Oklahoma who have earworms.

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Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

Laura Kolaczkowski comes from Beavercreek, Ohio, and worked at the University of Dayton for over 25 years until MS challenged her enough to go onto full-time disability. She is active in the MS community on multiple levels, and writes for her own personal blog, InsideMyStory and as a patient expert for MultipleSclerosis.net. Laura is the Lead Patient Representative and co-principal investigator for iConquerMS™, a patient powered MS research network. Laura freely admits her Liberal Arts background fuels her interest in patient engagement and empowerment and she struggles with the science of MS.
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Laura Kolaczkowski comes from Beavercreek, Ohio, and worked at the University of Dayton for over 25 years until MS challenged her enough to go onto full-time disability. She is active in the MS community on multiple levels, and writes for her own personal blog, InsideMyStory and as a patient expert for MultipleSclerosis.net. Laura is the Lead Patient Representative and co-principal investigator for iConquerMS™, a patient powered MS research network. Laura freely admits her Liberal Arts background fuels her interest in patient engagement and empowerment and she struggles with the science of MS.

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12 comments

  1. Brenda Z says:

    Wow! I’ve never heard of that but then there is no point, I am deaf! This blog article that you wrotevmade me think there were actually worms in our ears but it wasn’t about that. Its about music. Interesting.

    I could say I have earworms even though I am deaf. I get these loud roars or tinnitus in my ears, no music but constant ringing in both ears. Nothing really helps with that. I learned to live with it. I learned how to tune it out and not pay attention to it.

    I know that my deafness has nothing to do with MS, but both conditions are neurological. My deafness is nerve deafness and its genetic. I was born into deaf family, deaf parents, grandparents, aunt and uncles, and deaf siblings. We live in the deaf community where we all communicate in sign language called American Sign Language (ASL).

    Thanks for shedding the light on what earworms is all about and its link with MS. I need to ask my hearing MS friends if they get that.

  2. Linda Sasser says:

    77 yrs constant tinnitus and persistent ear worms. I have had tinnitus only since onset of MS, ear worms most of my life. I don’t hum along to them, but recently I hear subtle patterns in the AC fan, the oven element heating, etc. An emergency vehicle siren will continue in my head long after my own vehicle is too far away to really “hear” it. I have also developed a startle reflex for even familiar sounds. I had my hearing tested and have no hearing loss. It must be MS related.

  3. RW says:

    Hi Laura,

    I had to smile reading about your earworms. I’ve not heard of the term and I don’t suffer with songs replaying in my head BUT I too have a curious manifestation that I think is MS related. It happens mostly when I’m driving and consentrating on the next light or street or if I pass a bicyclist or jogger or anything that catches my attention, though I pass them by or went through the light or turned onto the street, my mind replays the whole scenario even though I’m at the next light or street or situation. This goes on and on until I reach my destination. It’s as if when I first see these things and distractions, my mind doesn’t recognize them for a few seconds and once I’ve driven passed them, my mind replays everything that I just saw. It happens too when I’m in a situation where a lot of things are happening all at once. It’s like there is a split second where I’m not in the moment but it will catch up to me in the next second. It’s also like when you see a video and the person speaking and the voice you are hearing is off just a bit in the relay. Have you ever experienced this?

  4. Nancy C Swim says:

    Hi Laura,
    I’ve had the theme song to I Dream of Jeannie stuck in my head since 2015. I was diagnosed with SPMS in 2016. I knew this earworm was special when listening to other music doesn’t make it go away. Nothing makes it go away. Thank goodness I don’t have it while I sleep. I’m 52. I and my doctors are fairly certain I’ve had a undiagnosed MS since I was 16.
    Thank you for sharing about your worm.

  5. RW says:

    I thought of one other thing I’ve noticed for years but never mentioned it to anyone. When I hear a sound or noise, such as a door shutting or a phone ringing or hamper closing or a dog barking etc… there is a moments delay and once the sound has come and gone, it then reverberates in my mind just for a moment. It’s kind of like when you see an airplane flying overhead but you don’t hear the jet noise until it has passed over you. Strange things happened with MS!

  6. Rob says:

    I woke up blind in September 2012, days after my 34th birthday, as well as 7 months into my wife’s pregnancy with our first (of two) sons. I’ve always been EXTREMELY OUTGOING! I would talk to a brick wall if it’d talk back! Lil’Robby (my oldest, just turned 5) and me argue walking through WalMart about who gets to talk to the NEXT PERSON WE ENCOUNTER FIRST! LOL! I was also voted the “Best Personality” in the “WHO’s WHO” of my senior yearbook.
    To my point, are you taking any type or form if “ANTIDEPRESSANT” ? Immediately after I was diagnosed, doctors put me on Zoloft. It about drove me CRAZY REPEATING EVERYTHING I HEARD! So then, they prescribed “CELEXA”, and it was EVEN WORSE!! ANY THING & EVERY THING, on TV, overheard someone else say, a song, a thought I myself had remembered, OVER, AND OVER, AND OVER!!!! I STOPPED THE ANTIDEPRESSANT, the repetitive thoughts stopped with them……..

  7. David says:

    I’ve had a tune in my head for as long as I can remember. Even as a small child I remember hearing a song. Fortunately for me, it’s not always the same song, although the one playing usually becomes repetitive these days. One time I asked my coworkers if they heard music all of the time. I was shocked! Shocked to learn that none of them did. As I’ve always lived with a tune rattling around in my brain, it’s never been an overwhelming distraction. I’ve had tinnitus since I was a teen, a product of my misspent youth (long live rock and roll). One thing I do is to listen to music most of the time. It keeps the tinnitus at bay and it keeps the music that I hear in my head the music that I want to hear.

  8. Denise says:

    I don’t experience this but I do something a little different. Whenever I am talking to someone or even myself haha. If anything I say was in a song, I end up singing that part of my sentence. I laugh about it and now I have friends doing that too. It’s more of a good thing for me rather than a nuisance. Best of luck to everyone ❤️

  9. Amy Higgins says:

    I have this happen to me sometimes, thankfully it is not constant. I was at a MS program and asked the rep if he could have the music turned off as it was driving me crazy and I could not concentrate on the speaker’s talk.
    He comes back a minute later and tells me there is NO music playing. I asked a doctor one time if this happens to others and was told NO!

  10. Joe says:

    Just coming across this article over a year later, as I struggle to keep the songs that pop in my head every day at bay. This has become more prevalent in the past 6-9 months.
    While no doctor has been able to diagnose me with MS without lesions, I suffer from similar symptoms (fatigue, heat intolerance and migraines are the top 3) , and my mother had MS .
    Wondering if this earworm symptom is also related.
    I had part of a lyric from a one hit wonder back in 1985 pop in my head last week. I had to google the phrase to even figure out what the song was ( it was over 35 years ago ) !
    Seems like this is more than a “one hit wonder ” type of symptom for those with MS.
    I read ways to try to alleviate them are to focus on other tasks ( mental and physical) help.

  11. si says:

    I have had my earworm for 40 years.the sad part is I have been diagnosed with schizophrenia when it is multiple sclerosis.

  12. Lili says:

    I have MS and recently started to have earworms. I thought at first that it was a side effect of Provigil, but it’s not. I don’t hear songs, I hum a musical phrase over and over all day long. If I’m not humming it, I’m grinding my teeth to the beat. Haven’t mentioned it yet to my doctor.

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