Tinnitus is the name given to describe hearing noises that are not coming from around you.
When you have tinnitus, the noises you hear are caused inside your ear. Tinnitus is extremely common, and can sometimes disappear on its own. In this article, we’ll explore what tinitus is and look at some potential treatment options, such as hearing aids.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is constant and can sound like high-pitched ringing, hissing, roaring, whooshing, buzzing, or rushing noises in one or both ears.
Tinnitus varies in severity and can have a huge impact on the life of the sufferer. Whilst some forms of tinnitus come and go, others experience a constant, relentless noise that can often be unbearable.
According to the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), one in eight people (or roughly 13.2% of the UK population) experience tinnitus or live with the condition.
What causes tinnitus?
Whilst it isn’t clear what exactly causes tinnitus, it could be a problem caused by the ear not being able to process sounds correctly and the brain failing to intercept them.
Overexposure to loud noises
Most cases of tinnitus are caused by damage to the inner ear. It isn’t just musicians who are susceptible to hearing problems like tinnitus, but also those who work in noisy environments like construction or in a warehouse.
This often happens if the sufferer has been over-exposed to loud noises, such as music, or work machinery without the correct ear-defending PPE.
Inner ear damage
Tinnitus can also occur naturally as a person gets older. This happens because aspects of your ears’ hearing mechanisms weaken with age. Often, it is not always obvious if part of a person’s inner ear is damaged.
When tinnitus occurs because of damage to the inner ear, sounds cannot pass from the outer ear to the inner ear. This can happen if the cochlea is damaged, which stops sound signals from being transmitted to the brain.
As a result, the brain may then actively seek out sound signals, which can lead to overexposure of sounds between the brain and the ear. This can cause the high-pitched noises a tinnitus sufferer experiences.
Ears also have a coil, which is essentially a spiralled tube containing sensitive hair cells, sometimes tinnitus can occur if these hair cells are damaged.
In addition to inner ear damage, tinnitus can also be caused by more mundane issues such as a build of ear wax or fluid in the middle ear cavity, known as ‘glue ear’.
Other factors that could cause tinnitus include ear infection, a perforated eardrum, Meniere’s disease (a condition that also causes vertigo) and otosclerosis (an abnormal bone growth in the middle ear). Often, these conditions can be treated fairly quickly and easily with olive oil or antibiotics.
Symptoms of tinnitus
Tinnitus is characterised by a continuous noise in one or both ears that is not caused by an external sound source. Only the sufferer can hear the noise.
The noises can range from a high-pitched, continuous ringing, buzzing, humming, roaring, whooshing, hissing, or whistling. Tinnitus can come and go, or it can be constant. The latter form of tinnitus is often the most difficult for sufferers to deal with.
Most people who have tinnitus suffer from subjective tinnitus, where only the individual can hear the noise. Other forms of tinnitus include pulsatile tinnitus, when the noise has a rhythm, often in time with your heartbeat. A doctor may be able to hear this kind of tinnitus when they conduct an examination. This is called objective tinnitus.
Can it be prevented or improved?
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for tinnitus. But it can sometimes be improved, and if not, there are ways for you to better manage your tinnitus.
For sufferers of tinnitus that comes and goes, certain factors can exacerbate the symptoms of tinnitus. These include:
- Lack of sleep
- Cardiovascular problems caused by smoking and obesity
- Stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
- Illness, common colds, flu and coronavirus
- Exposure to loud noise such as at concerts
Tinnitus, especially pulsatile tinnitus, is sometimes caused by an issue with blood circulation. Take good care of your physical health, and this can help improve the intensity of your tinnitus.
To prevent tinnitus, or at least stop it from worsening, limit your exposure to loud noises, and turn the volume down when listening to music. It’s important you make sure you wear the appropriate protection if you are a musician or working in a noisy environment such as construction or a factory.
If your employer fails to provide you with the correct ear protection equipment, they are breaking the law. Speak to your employer if you feel your safety requirements are not being met at your workplace.
And if your employer is not providing you with the appropriate PPE, you are well within your rights to file a claim against them. Some organisations like ACAS can help inform you about your workplace rights and how to move forward with a health and safety claim.
Treatment options for tinnitus
Whilst there is no cure for tinnitus, there are ways of improving your symptoms. It’s important to try and prevent your tinnitus from getting worse, and the best way to do this is to avoid listening to loud music or attending concerts. If you do, take appropriate safety precautions like wearing earplugs.
Treatment options for tinnitus can include:
- Hearing aids
- Treating a blood vessel condition
- Earwax removal
- Some medications can cause tinnitus, if you notice this then speak to your doctor about changing medicines
Other ways of helping you manage your tinnitus include:
- Decreasing stress. As stress can often make your tinnitus worse, relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation can help you decompress
- Limit alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. These substances can affect blood flow and contribute to tinnitus if used in excess
- Do not sit in silence. Use background noise such as lowe-level music or white noise, nature noises such as waves are also distracting
- Join a support group for other sufferers of tinnitus, this may help you cope with living with tinnitus
- Find resources. There is a lot of useful information on the British Tinnitus Association (BTS) website which provides advice and self-help information on coping with tinnitus
Whilst tinnitus can be debilitating, it’s important to know that there is support out there for you to help manage your hearing.
When to see a doctor
For the most part, tinnitus is not a sign of anything seriously wrong with your health. However, if you or a loved one notice that your tinnitus or hearing loss is interfering with your daily activities and quality of life, it’s important to visit your doctor.
If you have tinnitus regularly or constantly, it’s worth visiting your doctor to see if there are no underlying causes. You should also visit your doctor if you notice that your tinnitus is:
- Getting worse
- Your tinnitus is severely impacting your life and interfering with your daily activities, if it’s making you depressed, anxious, or unable to concentrate
- Your tinnitus beats in time with your pulse
Seek medical attention immediately if you experience tinnitus suddenly, this could be caused by:
- A head injury
- Or if your tinnitus is accompanied by sudden hearing loss, dizziness, vertigo or loss of muscle movement in the face. This could be a sign of a stroke
When you visit your doctor, they will check in your ears to see if your tinnitus is caused by anything tangible like a build-up of earwax. They may recommend a hearing test if they cannot see what is causing your tinnitus. You may also be referred to an audiologist for more accurate results.
Useful websites with information
If you suffer from tinnitus, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. There are many support groups available where you can connect with others who are also struggling with tinnitus. This may help you cope.
Hearing loss organisations have a wealth of free information and advice available to help those experiencing tinnitus. The organisation with the most knowledge and resources on tinnitus is the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), where you can contact helplines, become a member, volunteer, and contribute to the BTA’s quest for a cure for tinnitus.
The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) has guides available to download with a range of breathing techniques, relaxation methods, and coping mechanisms that could be hugely beneficial to managing your tinnitus.
Whatever stage you are on in your tinnitus journey, help and support is available to you to improve your symptoms and manage your hearing loss. Find a local support group near you to get the help and conversation you need to advise you along your tinnitus journey.
Thomas Kupai is a Specialist in Home Services for Spotdif. He helps customers find the best deal on home services.
Tom is an inventive problem solver and has a knack for finding creative solutions to difficult problems. He loves his work at Spotdif, where he helps customers find the best deal on home services. Tom takes great pride in his work and always puts the needs of others first.
He is a creative thinker who enjoys coming up with new ways to save people money. He takes pride in his work and loves helping others find what they need at a price they can afford. When he’s not working, Thomas enjoys spending time with his family and friends. He is an avid reader and loves learning new things.
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