Tinnitus is a relatively common condition. It’s when we hear sounds when there are no matching sounds around us. You can hear it in one or both ears, or inside your head. About one in 10 people in the UK have experienced mild tinnitus. And, according to the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), up to one per cent of adults have it severely enough to affect their lives.
It isn’t just older people who can experience tinnitus. This condition can happen at any age, from early childhood upwards. For most people it’s a temporary condition that can quickly disappear.
If you have tinnitus you are more likely to notice it when it’s quiet – especially when you’re trying to get to sleep. It can also affect your normal hearing, but in a different way. Some people can become overly sensitive to every day sounds around them, and find them particularly loud when those around them don’t.
What does tinnitus sound like?
The sounds you hear can vary from low to high pitched and you may hear only one, or a number of sounds. They types of sound you hear can vary also. They are often described as:
- buzzing sounds
- low-pitched droning
- like machinery
What causes tinnitus?
It can be difficult to find a precise cause for tinnitus. Your GP or specialist may be able to pinpoint a cause, or may suggest a number of possible causes. Or there may be no reason at all why you have developed this condition. The positive news is that tinnitus is rarely linked to serious health problems.
Some of the most common reasons for developing tinnitus are those that cause damage to the sensitive hearing nerves inside your inner ear. An infection – or repeated infections - of your middle ear can do this, as can something as simple as a plug of earwax that has blocked your ear. Our hearing tends to deteriorate as we age, and tinnitus can develop at the same time.
Otosclerosis is a condition where the tiny bony ossicles, found in the inner ear, are prevented from moving freely by abnormal bone growth. As this progresses it can affect your hearing and can be a cause of tinnitus. Ménière’s disease and Paget’s disease can also contribute to tinnitus.
Anaemia, a head injury, and prolonged exposure to loud noises, or sudden bursts of very loud noise can also be the cause of the problem. Even the force at which your blood flows through your body can have an effect, which is why tinnitus can be linked to high blood pressure and narrowed arteries.
Tinnitus can be a reaction to certain drugs, such as aspirin, statins, drugs to combat anxiety, many antidepressants, and some drugs used in treating cancer and heart failure. However, this usually only happens when taking particularly large doses of the drugs.
Research has shown that there is a link between tinnitus and stress. Particularly stressful events, such as the death of someone close to you, illness, losing your job or divorce can sometimes trigger tinnitus. Or it may make the existing condition worse.
Who can help with tinnitus?
If tinnitus is having a considerable impact on your life, making it difficult to live as you normally would, or causing distress, see your GP. They may be able to suggest possible causes. And they may be able to give you simple treatments for them, such as clearing wax from your ear, or prescribing antibiotics for an ear infection.
Ask your GP about a referral to the Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) department at your local hospital. They may then refer you to a tinnitus clinic, where you can get help and support from experts on this condition.
Counselling may help you cope with tinnitus. A medical counsellor will have specialist knowledge of your condition and will help you understand tinnitus. They will also help you with techniques to manage the condition.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
Medical counselling is one part of tinnitus retraining therapy, (TRT) which aims to reduce the anxiety and distress the condition can cause. Tinnitus Retraining Therapy also helps you retrain your brain, so that you pay less attention to the tinnitus, so that it bothers you less. This is referred to as habituation, and is similar to the way we become used to everyday noises around us – the drone of traffic from the road outside, for instance.
You might also consider cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This works by helping you to change the way you think, so changing the way you behave and respond to different situations.
Help get rid of tinnitus
“There is no pill or magic wand that will cure tinnitus but there are a number of strategies which can help minimise its effects,” says Mr Andrew McCombe, consultant ENT surgeon at Frimley Park Hospital, Surrey, and a former professional adviser to the British Tinnitus Association.
Mr McCombe said that there are a number of strategies that can help to minimize the effects of tinnitus, but patients weren’t always told about them.
“One of the most effective management techniques is sound enrichment, where the tinnitus is masked by a low level neutral soothing background noise such as rain on a rooftop or waves on a beach,” says Mr McCombe.
“These noises help distract the patient and make the tinnitus less noticeable.”
Products for tinnitus
Action on Hearing Loss (the new name for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), sell a range of sound therapy products that can help you to manage tinnitus. These include tinnitus CDs, tinnitus relaxers that help mask the tinnitus by helping you relax, and sound pillows and speakers.
There are other steps that you can take to make your tinnitus less overwhelming. Make a note of when the tinnitus is less obvious to you (for instance when you’re doing something you enjoy, like cooking or gardening), and use these activities as a distraction.
It’s also a good idea to make a note of when your tinnitus is more obvious. This can often be in quieter places. If that’s the case, see if you can deflect it with some gentle, low-level sound. Don’t do this all the time though. Trying to constantly avoid tinnitus can make you feel more stressed about it.
Support for tinnitus sufferers
Feeling stressed – whether about the tinnitus or any other aspect of your life – can make your tinnitus more noticeable. Take the time to think about what is making you stressed, and how you can reduce the effect it’s having on you.
“Attending a support group run by organisations like the British Tinnitus Association or Action on Hearing Loss, can also help,” says Mr McCombe.
Relaxation techniques are useful for everyone, regardless of the source of their stress and anxiety. The simplest form is to breath in slowly, counting from one to five (or three or four if you can’t manage five). Then breathe out, to the same count relaxing your muscles as you expel air. Do this a few times, several times a day, particularly when you feel stressed.
Yoga can also help you feel relaxed, and will help with deep breathing. If you’re able to, go for a walk in a park, or round your garden. Listening to music, spending time with people you like, even stroking your cat or dog can also help you de-stress.
Action on Hearing Loss - www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk
British Tinnitus Association (BTA) - www.tinnitus.org.uk