Tinnitus is a hearing issue that affects millions of people around the globe, and many sufferers accept it and believe it to be untreatable. In this article, we look at what tinnitus is, what causes it, and the new treatments and lifestyle changes you can make so that the symptoms don’t stop you from living a happy, healthy life.
What is tinnitus?
When someone has tinnitus, they hear ringing, hissing, buzzing, whistling, or chirping either continuously or intermittently when other people don’t.
Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, is a common condition affecting an estimated 50 million adults in the US. Affecting each individual differently, tinnitus can range from being a slight annoyance to severely impacting someone’s quality of life. Unfortunately, the condition can even be unbearable for some people, severely affecting their mental health, personal relationships, and work life. Those over 65 are more often affected.
In some cases, people find that the sound syncs with their heart-beat or pulse – what is referred to as pulsatile tinnitus. This rare form of tinnitus comes from inside the body, and your doctor might even be able to hear it too (what is referred to as objective tinnitus).
What is the main cause of tinnitus?
Although tinnitus can arise from underlying conditions which when treated can cause symptoms to disappear, a prolonged exposure to loud noise is a very common cause of tinnitus which can only be prevented, not cured. Loud noise can damage very small hairs in your inner ear, changing the signals sent to your brain that control how you hear sound.
Ninety percent of people with tinnitus have some noise-induced hearing loss, but it is not that one always causes the other. Loud noise, however, is a leading cause of both tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss. Some people are more susceptible to this than others, with the main group of people at risk being, unsurprisingly, those working in loud environments for prolonged periods of time. This can include professions such as pilots, construction workers, machinery operators, musicians, and people who work at nightclubs or music venues. However, with an increasing number of people experiencing some form of regular loud noise at work, the list of potential people affected is long.
Sometimes tinnitus can even be brought on by a sudden single exposure to loud noise, such as fireworks, which is particularly hard to avoid.
Other health conditions that can lead to tinnitus
- An ear infection, blockage or sometimes, a benign tumor of the auditory nerve.
- Head and neck injuries.
- Neck or jaw problems, such as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome.
- The deterioration of the cochlea (or other parts of the ear) due to aging.
- Ménière's disease, affecting the inner part of the ear.
- Otosclerosis, resulting in the stiffening of the small bones in the middle ear.
- Hormonal changes in women.
High blood pressure, diabetes, allergies, cardiovascular disease, circulatory problems, anaemia, an under-active thyroid gland, and some autoimmune diseases are common conditions which have also been associated with tinnitus.
Many prescription (and non-prescription) drugs list tinnitus as a potential side effect. Common drugs such as aspirin, some antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and antidepressants may even trigger tinnitus.
If you notice that you are experiencing the symptoms of tinnitus, it is important that you contact a doctor as it may be symptomatic of an underlying health condition which is treatable or requires medical attention. In particular, if you experience persistent noise in conjunction with other symptoms, this suggests that a health issue could be at play. For example, symptoms such as drainage or pain could indicate an ear infection, or dizziness may point to Ménière’s disease or a neurological issue. It is crucial to seek medical care as soon as possible.
Is tinnitus permanent?
People’s experience of tinnitus varies, with some people having tinnitus for a short period of time (usually when tinnitus is caused by an underlying condition) and some people having tinnitus for the rest of their lives after the onset.
Many people find it concerning that they do not know, and their doctors cannot tell them, how long their tinnitus will last. When tinnitus has no identifiable cause, symptoms may only be temporary, but they could last the rest of your life. This can impact people’s mental health and creates a need to develop coping strategies.
Obviously, the symptoms of tinnitus can greatly impact someone’s quality of life, but so can the emotional stress of not knowing when or if the noise will end. Many people find that attending therapy or a support group helps to reduce the perceived severity of their symptoms and is beneficial to their mindset regarding the condition.
What is the most effective treatment for tinnitus?
When your doctor cannot identify the cause of tinnitus, it becomes more difficult to cure someone of their tinnitus symptoms. Treatment often focuses on symptom management such as developing effective personal strategies to cope with the sound or avoiding triggers that make it worse.
There are a few factors that seem to make tinnitus worse for sufferers. Fatigue and stress have been cited as such factors, but the reasons for this are not completely obvious. It may be that they lower people’s mental threshold for coping with their symptoms, and they have been reported to trigger the onset of tinnitus symptoms or make the noise worse.
It is common to get stressed and anxious when you feel your symptoms worsening. Although it is easier said than done, don’t let stress overwhelm you, and make lots of time for relaxation. Sleep is particularly important, as a lack of sleep can make symptoms worse which in turn stops you from sleeping. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet can help to ease the symptoms of tinnitus, just as they are shown to be beneficial for your general stress levels.
Strategies to cope with the noise include avoiding possible triggers. When you learn what makes your symptoms worse, ensuring that you avoid these triggers can make life easier. As everyone has a different experience with tinnitus, people need to discover what affects them themselves, and focus on removing or reducing these things in their lives. It can be helpful to write a diary or log to help keep track.
Triggers that affect blood flow to sensitive nerve cells and stimulants can be particularly problematic. Try to stop smoking, keep an eye on your alcohol, caffeine, and salt intake, and take note of any drugs that you are taking such as aspirin. These common triggers have been reported to make the ringing louder.
Some other health conditions may cause a temporary onset of tinnitus or make the condition worse. Ensure that you are treating any existing medical conditions that could play a role in the severity of your tinnitus.
What is Tinnitus Sound Therapy and how does it work?
Aside from daily coping strategies, sound therapy (or sound enrichment) can help with some people’s symptoms.
Initially introduced to distract people from their tinnitus, sound therapy involves the use of low-level sounds to regulate the patient’s experience of tinnitus. It is thought of as a tool for coping with tinnitus, rather than a solution in itself.
People who suffer with tinnitus often report that their symptoms are most severe at night or when background noise is low, which can make the noise particularly easy to fixate on. It may be helpful to play gentle music, have the TV or radio on, or use a fan or white-noise machine to reduce the intensity of the noise when it is quiet. What kind of sound therapy will work best for you is down to your personal preferences. Anything from opening a window, being in the office, or around other people can help.
If you struggle with hearing loss, a hearing aid or personalized hearing earbud can help you to access soft environmental sounds.
It is disputed whether sound enrichment brings about physiological changes in sensitivity in the hearing parts of the brain, or functions as a psychological distraction conducive to relaxation. Regardless of the reasoning behind the benefits, most people with tinnitus find sound therapy useful to some extent, whether it is self-directed or part of a broader management program.
Sound therapy is cheap and easy to implement, making it a practical strategy for all tinnitus sufferers to try.
How can you avoid tinnitus?
As many tinnitus cases are brought on by loud noise, there are a few precautions that you can take to reduce your chance of developing the condition.
Listen to your music at a sensible volume and at 60% of full volume or lower when using earbuds. Loud music may have more of an impact when listened to for long periods, so try to listen for no more than 60 minutes at once. Be especially careful at music festivals, concerts, and other loud events. Music will not necessarily be played at a safe volume for everyone’s ears and you may not get a choice in how close to sound systems you will be. Bring earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones to mitigate risk.
Likewise, earmuffs and ear-plugs are great to use when operating power tools or loud machinery, such as chainsaws and workplace equipment. If you are concerned about the noise level in your place of work talk to your employer if it has not been acknowledged. Even if your employer thinks that the noise levels are acceptable, you are well within your right to use ear protection if you feel uncomfortable.
Hearing enhancing devices such as the Olive Smart Ear will perform useful functions such as allowing you to watch TV or listen to music at a lower volume, reducing the risk of permanent noise-induced damage to your ears.
If you are just starting to be aware of tinnitus symptoms, or if you’re looking to treat tinnitus, then there are multiple options for you to try. Always check with your doctor first to ensure that your tinnitus is not being caused by a separate health issue.