Let’s talk about tinnitus

If you have the condition, just reading this headline might have led to an increase in the buzzing, humming, ringing noise of tinnitus.

Tinnitus is the term used to describe noises that may be heard in your ears or head, in the absence of any sound in the environment. Although there’s much research in this area, the mechanisms of tinnitus are still not largely understood. It is not a disease, but rather a symptom and is usually due to a fault in the body’s hearing system. We do know that certain medications, stress, diseases, hearing loss and exposure to loud noise can be a factor – even having too much wax in the ear canal can cause tinnitus.

It’s thought that approximately 10% of UK adults suffer from tinnitus. It can be described in many ways and can sound differently to each person. Some common descriptions of what tinnitus sounds like include buzzing, humming, ringing, birds or crickets chirping, static, pulsing, whooshing, a constant tone or clicking. In some cases, the sound of your tinnitus can give your healthcare professional clues as to what could be causing it. Here are some examples:

Clicking: Muscle contractions in and around your ear can cause sharp clicking sounds that you may hear in bursts. They tend to last from several seconds to a few minutes.

Rushing or humming: Usually vascular in origin, you may notice sound fluctuations when you exercise or change positions, such as when you lay down or stand up.

Heartbeat: Blood vessel problems such as high blood pressure, an aneurysm or a tumour, and blockage of the ear canal or eustachian tube can amplify the sound of your heartbeat in your ears. This is known as pulsatile tinnitus.

Low-pitched ringing: Conditions that can cause low-pitched ringing in one ear include Meniere’s disease. Tinnitus may become very loud before an attack of vertigo – a sense that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving.

High-pitched ringing: Exposure to a very loud noise or a blow to the ear can cause a high-pitched ringing or buzzing, which usually goes away after a few hours. However, if there’s hearing loss as well, tinnitus may be permanent. Long-term noise exposure, age-related hearing loss or medications can cause a continuous, high-pitched ringing in both ears. Acoustic neuroma can cause continuous, high-pitched ringing in one ear.

Other sounds: Stiff inner ear bones (otosclerosis) can cause low-pitched tinnitus that may be continuous or come and go. Earwax, foreign bodies or hairs in the ear canal can rub against the eardrum, causing a variety of sounds.

In approximately 5% of people, tinnitus is caused by the temporomandibular joint in the jaw, which is treatable. This type of tinnitus occurs because jaw muscles and a muscle in the middle ear are closely connected. When jaw muscles spasm the ear muscles react by pulling the eardrum too tight and this can result in tinnitus.

Some diseases such as Meniere’s disease may cause tinnitus and deafness in one ear as well as periodic attacks of dizziness. Either the tinnitus or the dizziness may be the predominant symptom, so some patients may complain of tinnitus in the affected ear. Some patients have tinnitus in both ears, therefore an accurate diagnosis/treatment of Meniere’s disease may reduce it.

Some medications are also known to cause tinnitus, so if in you’re in doubt, speak to your GP.

What can I do if I suffer from Tinnitus?

Get your hearing checked: If you suffer from tinnitus, it is important to see your GP and get your hearing checked by an audiologist. Tinnitus is often associated with a hearing loss and in some cases, it may be caused by a medical condition. In these cases, your audiologist will suggest that you see an ENT specialist.

Hearing Aids: Good quality and properly fitted hearing aids reduce and even eliminate most tinnitus associated with hearing losses. Hearing aids take away the strain of listening and distract from the tinnitus by bringing you more environmental sounds from the outside world.

Sound Generator: These devices look like a hearing aid and are recommended for people with no hearing loss. As the name suggests, it produces sounds which stimulate most fibres of the hearing nerve to help deviate attention away from the tinnitus. Depending on the sound of your tinnitus, several different options and volumes can be tried to find the one that works best for you.

Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT): This aims to reduce and ultimately eliminate tinnitus perception. It works by combining auditory therapy (hearing aids and/or therapeutic noise generators) to provide the brain with maximum environmental sounds to reduce tinnitus perception. It is also used alongside counselling to change negative beliefs, distract from tinnitus and reduce stress.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT): This is offered by clinical psychologists and is effective in alleviating distress and producing adaptation to tinnitus. CBT is threefold and works by changing the way a person perceives tinnitus – teaching ways to focus attention away from tinnitus and achieving control over stress.

Dietary changes: Try reducing your intake of salt, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, as these are all known to make your tinnitus worse. For some people, herbal remedies or Vitamin B12 may be helpful, but please consult your specialist before taking any supplements.

Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, tinnitus can’t be resolved. However, some people get used to it, so notice it less with time. For many, certain adjustments can make the symptoms of tinnitus less bothersome. Some tips that may help include:

Avoiding possible irritants: Reduce your exposure to things that may make your tinnitus worse. Common examples include loud noises, caffeine and nicotine.

Covering up the sound of the tinnitus: In a quiet setting, a fan, soft music or low-volume radio static may help mask the noise.

Manage stress: Stress can make tinnitus worse. Stress management through relaxation therapy, biofeedback or exercise may provide some relief.

Sometimes it helps to talk with others who share your experiences, as they may be able to suggest new management techniques to try, provide support or just give you an opportunity to speak with someone else. The British Tinnitus Association is an organisation providing support and counselling for people with tinnitus. For more information on their services please see their website.

We’re also always on hand to offer our professional advice and guidance. Email [email protected] or call 0800 054 1138.

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