- What is tinnitus?
- What causes it?
- Can it be cured?
- How to live with it and manage it
What is tinnitus?Different people experience tinnitus in different ways. It can take the form of any of the following:
- hearing your heartbeat or pulse in your ear - a throbbing sensation,
- a ringing noise of various frequencies, sometimes multiple frequencies at once,
- a buzzing noise,
- feeling like you're hearing your blood flow in your ear,
- a whooshing noise,
- humming, either low or high pitch
- music or singing
- a hissing noise
Tinnitus is especially common when some degree of hearing loss (see Sensorineural hearing loss: Causes, Symptoms and treatment) is already present. The ringing, hissing, buzzing sounds that occur are not audible for other people (apart from audiologists in some cases). They come and go with different levels of intensity and may appear in one or both ears. Usually associated with hearing loss, tinnitus can occur after a prolonged or abrupt exposure to extra loud noise and it has the potential to affect anyone of any age. Tinnitus can fade away, but in other situations it becomes permanent and the sufferer must find a way to cope. Tinnitus can occur in different parts of the ear and does not come from external sound sources. It can be extremely uncomfortable for the sufferer depending on its continuity and severity. Tinnitus is not a disease but can indicate various underlying health conditions.
Tinnitus can be subjective (nonpulsatile) or objective (pulsatile).
Subjective tinnitusOnly the individual can hear subjective tinnitus. It is commonly caused by damage in the outer, middle or inner ear. Problems with the auditory nerves responsible for sending sound signals to the brain can also cause subjective tinnitus. Damage to the hearing nerve may lead to mistakes in the brain interpretation of sounds and cause tinnitus.
Objective tinnitusAn audiologist can hear objective tinnitus during an exam. It is most commonly attributed to blood vessel problems or inner muscle contractions.
What causes tinnitus?There are a number of factors that can cause tinnitus. A healthcare specialist could be able to help isolate the origins of your tinnitus. Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common cause. Other causes include earwax congestion, otosclerosis, high blood pressure, use of certain medications, and exposure to sudden extra loud noises. Having a hectic and strenuous lifestyle can also trigger the condition. If the constant background noise becomes an everyday part of the sufferer’s life, it can cause a great deal of stress and can even result in severe anxiety and depression. But don't despair, underlying medical conditions can lead to ringing in the ears and treating them may help.
Common causes of tinnitus:Different causes, such as those below, can impact the type of tinnitus the sufferer has.
- Age related hearing loss (Presbycusis)
- Ear infections
- Earwax congestion in one or both ears
- Continuous or abrupt loud noises, such as listening to extra loud noises or working in a place with exceptional noise levels
- Head trauma: head and neck trauma can sometimes cause tinnitus in one ear without hearing loss
- Health problems: Otosclerosis, Acoustic Neuroma (which can cause tinnitus in one ear only), Arteriovenous malformations, high blood pressure, and problems with the Temporomandibular Joint
- Neurologic or metabolic disorders
- Some drugs such as antibiotics, analgesics, cardiac drugs, anticonvulsants, antihistamines and others can have tinnitus as a side effect. Please check with your doctor.
The cause of objective tinnitus is usually muscle spasms or increased blood pressure around the ears, neck or face. These contractions or pulses can be heard by the ear and perceived as a crackling or clicking sound. They can be alleviated if the underlying condition is improved with treatment.
Subjective tinnitus is connected to damage to the nerves responsible for hearing. The same nerve damage could lead to hearing loss as well. It usually occurs after a prolonged exposure to loud noises or it could be a side effect of certain medications such as aspirin, quinidine or other antibiotics. However, in many cases, it is impossible to find a single source of the ringing and the cause remains unknown.
Can tinnitus be cured?
There is no official medication that can cure tinnitus. Research continues in this field in order to find refined and sure ways of curing tinnitus. But, we do have tinnitus aids that could be of great use to help combat the condition. To find the best treatment or management of the condition, you should turn to a specialist to determine the type of tinnitus and the possible causes for it.
One way to treat tinnitus is to find its cause or if another medical condition is the root. Depending on the exact condition, noise suppression and use of hearing aids can also help as well as changing current medications. In the case where the sufferer also experiences a level of hearing loss, the use of hearing aids that provide an option allowing suppressing of noise can provide relief. The use of tinnitus maskers may be of some assistance if it is difficult to treat or determine the underlying condition. These devices produce low-level white noise or natural sounds in order to reduce the perception of tinnitus and “mask” the condition. There is not a specific cure for tinnitus as every person’s complaints and severity are different. In many cases, tinnitus appears and then subsides and medical treatment does not help. However, there are some methods you can use to manage the condition. A popular method recommended by specialists is the use of noise creating devices that will “hide” the ringing sound and replace it with pleasant sounds, such as the ocean, or soft programmed music targeted to mask particular frequencies of the individual tinnitus sounds.
Living with tinnitus
Perception is also an important part of accepting and living with tinnitus. Many counseling programs aim to explain and help sufferers understand their condition. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can help sufferers focus less on the sounds they hear inside their ears while providing them with emotional support. According to the American Tinnitus Association, CBT has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments available to reduce the distress from tinnitus and increase the quality of life. This Webinar on using CBT for tinnitus is a great resource.
Alternative medicine has also offered some solutions to help the condition of tinnitus. These include aromatherapy, acupuncture, magnet therapy, yoga, meditation, massages amongst others. Although some people report a decrease of tinnitus and improvement, studies are inconclusive as to how beneficial these methods are and if they are actually helpful. Some herbs that are recommended for tinnitus can have side effects. You should discuss taking these supplements with a medical professional first.
Living with tinnitus is challenging and scientists are actively looking for ways to alleviate the condition and find a cure. One option scientists are currently investigating is retraining (or rebooting) the brain in such a way that it stops recognizing errant signals from the damaged hearing nerves. Another area of research is focusing on developing drugs that will “tone down” overactive neurons. Scientists believe that studying the mechanism of interaction between the hearing cells and the potassium channels could lead to new treatments.
How to manage tinnitus
To manage tinnitus, it is very important to know what it is and what the possible causes may be as well as what underlying health problems may be impacting the tinnitus. In most situations, ringing in the ears is not a sign of a serious medical issue but still, people should consider addressing the problem and consult with a health professional to make sure they have the correct diagnosis.
Tinnitus, like any other health problem, has a significant impact on the sufferer’s lifestyle. It can lead to stress, anxiety, insomnia, problems with concentrating, and memory. However, tinnitus has the potential ability to improve gradually over time and treatment may no longer be required. One way to cope with it is to treat the problems that could be connected to it. Changing existing medication to another brand where the side effects do not affect hearing could help.
There are several solutions, however, that some people implement to ease the discomfort and lessen the influence of these unpleasant sounds in everyday life:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Tinnitus Retraining Therapy: Both involve retraining the brain and its responses to tinnitus
- Focus on the external sounds and not the sounds in the ears
- Avoid situations that aggravate the condition such as noisy places, smoking and drinking alcohol
- Minimizing stress levels
- A change in the daily routine and diet can also be helpful
- Trying alternative methods such as acupuncture, sound therapy, or even hypnosis.
How can we help?You may find our blog post on tinnitus maskers helpful. The Tinnitus Relief Sound Pillow is as comfortable as a normal pillow but has an additional component - stereo speakers that can be connected to an external sound generator, which can provide white noise or other sound to mask the tinnitus.
It is best to consult your GP or a healthcare professional if you think you're suffering from tinnitus. Please do contact us and my expert team will do their best to assist you if you have any issues or queries.
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Author: Joan McKechnie
After qualifying as a Speech-Language Pathologist and Audiologist Joan has spent most of her 20 year career in hearing-care related roles. She has a wealth of experience within the hearing aid and hearing rehabilitation fields and has worked in manufacturing environments with two hearing aid companies helping to develop products and roll out new technologies. Joan has been involved with Hearing Direct since its launch and enjoys the online retail environment which seeks to provide easier access to hearing products and accessories. She is HCPC registered. Read Joan's full bio here.