The BTA’s Guide to Living with Tinnitus
As we reach the halfway point of Tinnitus Awareness Week, Emily Broomhead, of charity the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), explains what you need to know about the hearing condition and gives The Best of Health guidance and advice of how best to live with it.
Approximately 10% of adults in the UK have tinnitus. People of any age can have tinnitus, but it often affects people over 50 as hearing can worsen over time.
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 of tinnitus 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 tinnitus 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 their 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 about tinnitus 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 (sound deprivation), 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, as well as a hearing aid to help tinnitus. 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 for tinnitus, there are many ways you can minimise the noise that you hear within your ears.
- Help to reduce the amount of family attention tinnitus 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 tinnitus 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 – see below for more information;
- You may watch a lot of television right before you go to bed. This can sometimes be over stimulating before sleep and lead to a restless night. Reading a book or having a bath before bed to unwind can ease tinnitus;
- 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 tinnitus 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.
Emily Broomhead is project manager of the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), a UK charity dedicated to supporting people with tinnitus.