Tinnitus can plague the everyday lives of up to 1 in 10 of the adult population and is more likely to affect the over 50s. There is no cure for the condition, although there are many options for managing it. For some sufferers tinnitus can be debilitating and may lead to insomnia, difficulty with concentration, irritability, anxiety and depression.
Let’s have a look at the basics before we take a closer look tomorrow at the recent developments in managing the condition.
Tinnitus is essentially a ringing in your ears. The sound is a symptom generated within the inner pathways of your ear and can differ in pitch and continuity, depending on a person’s individual case. The noise may occur in one or both ears, or the head, and can be a single noise or many sounds together.
The exact cause isn’t fully understood but it can be associated with:
- Hearing loss
- Exposure to loud noise
- Stress and anxiety
- Ear infections
The ageing process is another factor to consider in relation to tinnitus. The hair cells in your inner ear can become damaged over time leading to the attached nerve fibres dying. This causes the brain to try and repair the ear by sending out signals which may be heard as sounds.
Tinnitus is rarely an indication of something more serious, but it’s worth checking with your doctor if you experience any sounds.
Symptoms of Tinnitus
Sometimes, if you have the condition, you may be sensitive to everyday sounds. One example is a noise from the radio or television that seems to be a normal volume for most people, but you might find it painfully loud.
Pressure changes within the ears, due to movement and posture changes, can also trigger tinnitus-like symptoms. Quiet environments can make internal sounds more noticeable as they’re no longer masked by external noise.
Diagnosing tinnitus can be difficult because it varies from case to case. If you’re concerned, it may be a good idea to visit your GP who’ll be able to refer you to the relevant audiology service or an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist.
Hearing Loss and Aids for Tinnitus
Hearing loss is a common factor underlying tinnitus and often people don’t notice they have hearing loss because they assume it’s their tinnitus that’s causing their hearing difficulties. It is important to have your hearing checked on a regular basis, much the same as you would your eyes.
If you have hearing loss and tinnitus, hearing aids will usually be recommended by an audiologist. If your tinnitus is related to hearing loss, a hearing aid may help to correct the hearing loss, which, in turn, can reduce tinnitus.
A wearable sound generator or white noise generator can be used to help relieve your symptoms. The generator produces a constant “white noise” – a gentle rushing sound that can help distract from the sound of tinnitus. These devices look like hearing aids and can be worn in the ear or behind, just as you would a hearing aid. There are also devices available that combine both hearing aid and white noise in one device. White noise generators are an optional part of tinnitus sound therapy. They should always be fitted by a hearing specialist as part of a tinnitus management programme.
Living with Tinnitus
While there is currently no cure, there are many ways you can minimise the noise that you hear within your ears.
- Help to reduce the amount of family attention your condition is getting. Ask other relations to support you by not making it the focus of conversation.
- Worrying about tinnitus can often exacerbate symptoms. Avoid planning your life around it to relieve day-to-day stress.
- Calm your breathing and practise muscle relaxation exercises everyday. Relaxation is generally helpful, so trying anything that helps you relax is definitely worthwhile.
- If tinnitus is disrupting sleep it may be that the quiet of the bedroom makes it more noticeable. You could try sound therapy to help you get off to sleep.
- Watching television right before you go to bed can sometimes be over stimulating and lead to a restless night. Reading a book or having a bath before bed to unwind can ease your symptoms.
- If you try to avoid your tinnitus altogether you can end up panicking when it worsens. Shift your attention to something you enjoy instead of focusing on ignoring the tinnitus.
“Getting Used” to Tinnitus
Although the term “masking” is frequently used, other sounds should actually be used to help distract rather than mask the tinnitus completely. The brain needs to hear the sound of the tinnitus in order to start to habituate or “get used” to the sound. Once the process of habituation starts, the brain begins to switch off, recognising the sound as normal, and many people then find the noise begins to lessen and go into the background.
There are many clinics in NHS hospitals that can provide a choice of devices and equipment to manage the hearing condition. The BTA also has a range of sound therapy devices available from their website and can offer advice on which might be most suitable.
We would like to look at the developments in finding a cure and better ways to manage the day to day lives of patients.
An American study which analysed the data on over 65,000 women over an 18 year period, found that women who consumed more caffeine were less likely to have tinnitus. Senior author and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Professor Curham noted that “caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, and previous research has demonstrated that caffeine has a direct effect on the inner ear.”
He and his colleagues found that regardless of age, rates of the condition were 15% lower among women who drank between 3 and 4 average cups of coffee, compared with women who drank less than one per day. They also said that more research was needed to confirm this link.
In another study last year which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers found that the delivery of electromagnetic pulses could improve the severity of symptoms.
People who suffer from chronic tinnitus find that their quality of life is badly affected and hence, scientists have researched potential new forms of treatment for decades. Previous studies have indicated that people with the condition have increased activity in the auditory cortex region of the brain. Low frequency electromagnetic stimulation via the scalp is known to reduce brain activity in this region and, as a result, been proposed as a potential method of treatment.
Finally in a study published in September 2015, researchers say they have identified the brain defects that lead to tinnitus and chronic pain. The teams from Washington DC, USA and Munich in Germany explain that the mechanisms in the brain which usually control noise and pain signals lose the ability to do so, which means that pain is still “felt” long after the initial injury occurred.
They describe these controls as a kind of “gate.” The scientists were able to follow the flow of the noise and pain signals through the brain and show where controls should be occurring. By identifying these areas within the brain, it is hoped that more targeted treatment can be developed to restore proper gatekeeping controls.
Tinnitus can follow when the ears are damaged by loud noise and the brain then continues to “hear” this. In a similar way, chronic pain from an injury can remain in the brain long after the injury has healed.
Dr Markus Ploner from the team in Munich says, ” Better understanding could also lead to standardised assessment of individuals’ risk to develop chronic tinnitus and chronic pain, which in turn might allow for earlier and more targeted treatment.”
If you would like more information about the condition, please follow the link below to the British Tinnitus Association.
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