Tinnitus is a condition in which the sufferer hears sounds that come inside the head. It is not a disease, but a symptom of an underlying problem. Although the condition can be extremely annoying, it is not usually a sign of anything more serious.
The sounds are not generated by any source outside of the body so only the person who has tinnitus can hear these sounds. Most people describe it as a high-pitched consistent ringing sound in the ears but others may also hear steady or intermittent clicking, hissing or whistling sounds. A person suffering from tinnitus can hear the sounds even when in a completely silent room, while others in the room would not hear anything at all.
Does tinnitus get better with time? There is no straightforward answer to this question. While there is no cure yet for tinnitus, in most cases it can be managed so that the sounds become more, well, more manageable.
What Causes Tinnitus?
Damage and loss of the tiny sensory hair cells in the cochlea of the inner ear results in the brain receiving less external stimuli around a specific frequency. Studies that have been done to determine the cause of tinnitus indicate that the brain tries to adapt to the reduced stimuli by filling in the sound frequencies it no longer receives from its own auditory system.
In older people damage to the cochlea of the inner ear typically occurs as a result of the normal aging process while in younger individuals it is more commonly caused due to prolonged exposure to excessively loud noise.
Other possible causes of tinnitus include:
- Head and neck injuries.
- Traumatic brain injury.
- Complications associated with multiple sclerosis.
- Ménière’s disease.
- Problems with the Eustachian tube or middle ear.
- Ear infection or disorder.
- Side effect to certain medicines such as aspirin and quinine.
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders.
In many cases, it is difficult to identify the exact cause because the ear is otherwise fine and there are no other symptoms but there are a few risk factors that are usually considered in making an accurate diagnosis.
Sudden or extended exposure to high noise is one of the highest risk factors and among the most common causes of sudden onset of the symptoms. Sudden exposure could occur when attending a hard rock concert or being in close proximity to explosives.
Extended exposure may occur from working in a factory, construction site or any other workplace where heavy machinery is used. These are all preventable risk factors, which mean you can take steps to reduce the incidence of tinnitus by protecting your ears if you work in a high-decibel work environment or when going to a rock concert or a fireworks display. Playing music at low levels, especially with headphones on will also help reduce the risk factor. If you tinnitus was caused by negligence, for example your employer didn’t follow set procedures to protect your hearing, you could claim compensation.
Aging, smoking and hearing loss are other risk factors for this condition. Gender is also a factor, with men being more susceptible than women.
Some people find it easier to ignore the sounds and are able to get on with their life despite the persistent ringing, buzzing, clicking or humming sounds. However some people find the symptoms overpowering and require treatment to help them ignore the debilitating sounds.
The first step to managing tinnitus is to consult with an otolaryngologist or an ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialist. An otolaryngologist will conduct a few tests and do a thorough evaluation to determine an underlying cause and to exclude any potentially life-threatening causes of tinnitus.
The doctor will also want to know:
- When and how you start hearing the sounds.
- Whether you work in a loud-noise environment without any or insufficient protective aids.
- If you attended a rock concert or a fireworks display in the recent past.
- Whether you hear only the sounds by themselves or if there is any dizziness or hearing loss.
- If you have a painful jaw or you hear a clicking in the jaw.
- If you were recently ill or injured.
After the initial exam, you may also need to then complete a hearing test and other diagnostic and laboratory tests.
If the diagnosis reveals the presence of TMJ problems, ear infection or some other injury, then addressing these underlying causes is the first step towards treating tinnitus.
If the diagnosis does not reveal the presence of any underlying cause, then the treatment focuses on managing the symptoms and helping the sufferer lead a better quality of life despite the nagging sounds.
One of the most effective ways to get respite from the symptoms of tinnitus is to ignore the noises or tune them out. It’s easier said than done but those who have tried it and succeeded attest to the fact that this can provide tremendous relief.
Sound therapy can be effective at managing those annoying tinnitus symptoms. This involves using external noises such as white noise, low-level background music or specialised ear maskers.
Sound therapy works by masking the individuals’ perception of tinnitus. It works very well but the downside is that it provides only temporary relief – when the device is shut off, the awareness of tinnitus returns.
Hearing aids are a common type of sound therapy. They work by amplifying environmental sounds and redirecting the wearer’s attention from the annoying tinnitus noises to less annoying environmental sounds instead.
Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) or tinnitus feedback retraining is also very effective at managing tinnitus. It involves wearing a specially designed device and retraining the auditory system to accept tinnitus sounds as natural rather than disruptive. This cannot be accomplished alone though. It requires ongoing counselling sessions with a trained professional. The success of the therapy depends on the severity of the tinnitus symptoms.
A healthier lifestyle is advisable if you are looking for relief from tinnitus symptoms. This includes maintaining a healthy diet and good sleeping habits, exercising regularly and not smoking. While a healthier lifestyle by itself will not get rid of tinnitus completely, it can help alleviate the intensity of the symptoms and provide tremendous physical and mental relief.
Stress and anxiety can make the symptoms worse. Practicing stress reduction techniques can increase your tolerance and provide much-needed relief.