Tinnitus is a physical condition, experienced as noises or ringing in the ears or head, when no such external physical noise is present. The noises may sound like ringing, buzzing, whistling, roaring or humming in the ears. It is a symptom of a problem with the body's hearing system. Although there is no cure, some causes of tinnitus are treatable. Tinnitus can be managed with some lifestyle changes.
Tinnitus is a physical condition, experienced as noises or ringing in the ears or head, when no such external physical noise is present. Tinnitus is not a disease in itself. It is a symptom of a fault in the auditory (hearing) system, which includes the ears and the brain. The word ‘tinnitus’ is Latin in origin and means ‘tinkling or ringing like a bell’.
Tinnitus is common
Approximately 17 to 20 per cent of Australians suffer from some degree of tinnitus, varying from mild to severe. The percentage of people who are severely affected is small. It is common for tinnitus to fluctuate with stress or tiredness, but this has no harmful significance.
Types of sounds experienced with tinnitus
There are many different sounds associated with tinnitus; some of the most common are:
What causes tinnitus?
Among the more common causes of tinnitus are:
- Exposure to loud sounds
- Extreme stress or trauma
- Degeneration of the hair cells in the cochlear
- Ear problems, such as otosclerosis (fixation of the tiny stirrup bone in middle ear)
- Meniere's disease (swelling of a duct in the ear)
- Some prescription and non-prescription drugs.
Major preventable causes of tinnitus
The two major preventable causes of tinnitus are:
- Exposure to loud noise – for example, noisy lawn mowers or chainsaws. People at high risk include industrial workers, farmers and transport workers. Listening to loud music in cars, through headphones and at rock concerts can also be hazardous.
- Medications – for example, some prescription and non-prescription medications. If you have tinnitus, always check with your doctor whether the drug they are prescribing for you has a side effect of causing or exacerbating tinnitus.
How tinnitus affects people
Tinnitus can be extremely debilitating, affecting peoples’ ability to work or cope with normal life activities. People with tinnitus may suffer from:
- Extreme distress (this is common)
- Frequent mood swings, depression or anxiety attacks
- Tension, irritability or frustration
- Poor concentration
- Sleep problems.
In the early stages
When you first learn you have tinnitus:
- Consult your doctor, an audiologist (hearing scientist) or an ear, nose and throat specialist to reassure yourself that you do not have an underlying medical condition.
- Learn all you can about tinnitus. You can find a lot of literature through the Tinnitus Association of Victoria.
- Accept that you have tinnitus. Once you have done this, you are halfway to mastering it.
- Understand that you will be very tired and depressed in the early stages.
Habituation to tinnitus
The aim of all tinnitus sufferers is to reach the point where their tinnitus does not unduly affect their quality of life. This is known as habituation. It is important to undergo medical tests to resolve your underlying fears about tinnitus (for example, that it may be caused by a serious illness). You cannot become habituated to tinnitus if you are afraid.
Once you become habituated to tinnitus:
- Your tinnitus will have no negative emotional meaning. Therefore, it will no longer unduly impact on your life.
- You will notice an improvement in your insomnia, ability to concentrate, depression and anxiety.
- You will still have some days where your tinnitus is more troublesome than usual, for example, when you are overstressed or tired.
There is strong anecdotal evidence that stress exacerbates tinnitus. Although stress is part of everyday life, you can take steps to reduce stress levels by undertaking relaxation therapies. It will help if you:
- Stay as calm as you can – becoming agitated about your tinnitus may make it worse.
- Develop techniques and activities that help you relax.
- Try to avoid stressful situations.
- Think positively – feeling negative and angry can aggravate the problem.
Avoid exposure to loud noise
Loud noise will exacerbate tinnitus:
- Wear ear muffs or ear plugs for activities such as mowing the lawn or using a chainsaw.
- Avoid loud nightclubs or use ear protection. If you have to shout to make yourself heard when someone is standing about one metre from you, the noise level is too loud and will make your tinnitus worse.
Treatment for tinnitus
Many people are wrongly told that nothing can be done about their tinnitus and that they will just have to learn to live with it. Although there is no cure for tinnitus, those affected can learn techniques to successfully manage their tinnitus to the point where it is no longer a problem for them. People with tinnitus can continue to lead full and productive lives.
Good quality and properly fitting hearing aids can:
- Reduce your perception of tinnitus by improving your hearing
- Take away the strain of listening.
There are no specific drugs for the treatment of tinnitus. Sedatives and drugs may prove helpful in the early stages. However, drugs without counselling are rarely effective. Alternative medicines and acupuncture only rarely seem to be helpful.
Surgery is seldom justified and can aggravate tinnitus.
Hypnotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapy
Hypnotherapy can indirectly help by aiding relaxation. Cognitive behaviour, which is offered by clinical psychologists, can help you to:
- Change the way you think about tinnitus
- Learn ways to focus your attention away from your tinnitus
- Control the stress associated with tinnitus.
Lifestyle changes can help
Tinnitus can be managed with some lifestyle changes, including:
- Diet regimes are sometimes helpful – try easing off caffeine (tea, coffee, chocolate or cola drinks), quinine (tonic water) and alcohol as they can temporarily worsen tinnitus for some people.
- Quit smoking – smoking narrows the blood vessels that supply vital oxygen to your ears and their sensory cells.
- Keep physically and mentally active – try and take up exercise, hobbies or interests. Even if your tinnitus prevents you from working, try to keep as physically and mentally active as possible. Do not withdraw from life.
- Find the best ways to mask your tinnitus – try surrounding yourself with pleasant noise; for example, playing the radio softly, or listening to relaxation music, rain falling on the roof or the ocean surf.
Be wary of tinnitus ‘cures’
There are many so-called tinnitus ‘cures’ on the market. Most of these have no scientific basis. If you have a query about a specific treatment, consult your doctor or contact the Tinnitus Association of Victoria.
Where to get help
- Tinnitus Association of Victoria Tel. (03) 9770 6075
- Meniere's Australia Tel. 1300 368 818
- Your doctor.
Things to remember
- Tinnitus is a symptom of a problem with your hearing system.
- You should see your doctor if you think you have tinnitus.
- There are a variety of treatments which may help relieve symptoms.
You might also be interested in:
- Acoustic neuroma.
- Deafness - a range of causes.
- Ears - otosclerosis.
- Ears - ways to protect your hearing.
- Hearing loss - how it affects people.
- Meniere's disease.
- Paget's disease of the bone.
- Tinnitus - insomnia and sleep problems.
- Tinnitus - reducing the impact.
- Workplace safety - noise pollution.
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Last reviewed: June 2011
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