What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus, sometimes described as ‘ringing in the ears’, is the symptom of hearing sounds or noises without an external source for the sound - tinnitus is only heard by the sufferer.
Tinnitus is a common condition. Although estimates vary, it is said that:
- Up to 15% of people experience tinnitus at some point in their lives
- It affects 20% of people between the ages of 55 and 65
- Long-term or chronic tinnitus is said to affect 1% of the population
It is usually a temporary condition, but for some, tinnitus can be chronic and long-term.
Tinnitus occurs more commonly with age, especially after sixty and is associated with mild hearing loss.Tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom and the result of underlying, usually minor, health conditions. However, the sounds heard may disrupt concentration and cause insomnia. In serious cases, tinnitus can lead to stress, anxiety or depression.
Hearing of faint noises is normal and is not termed tinnitus. These noises can be heard by everyone when going into a sound proofed area where normal outside noise is diminished – this makes you more aware of normal ‘head noise’ as there is no outside noise to mask it.
What do people with Tinnitus hear?
People with tinnitus experience a wide variety of symptom patterns.
Tinnitus may be present in one or both ears. Although very often described as a ringing noise, tinnitus can also be described as ‘buzzing’, ‘whining’, ‘hissing’, ‘humming’, ‘roaring’, ‘whistling’ and the use of other similar words.
Tinnitus is most often perceived as a continuous noise, but rhythmic, clicking or beating sounds are also heard. Sometimes, these sounds are in time with the heart beat and known as ‘pulsatile tinnitus’.
The level of noise experienced by those suffering from tinnitus is variable. For most, tinnitus is heard at a low volume of background noise, perceptible only in quiet surroundings and drowned out by normal conversation. For others, noise levels are so high that tinnitus is heard even when other loud sounds are present.
Causes of the problem
There are many possible causes of tinnitus. However, the precise reason for tinnitus in an individual case is often not clear.
The main causes of tinnitus are:
- Age – tinnitus is associated with the natural loss of hearing as one gets older.
- Exposure to loud noises – eg. tinnitus experienced immediately after attending a loud concert.
- Medication – tinnitus is associated with use of medicines such as aspirin, some antibiotics, or the withdrawal of medicines such as benzodiazepines, a type of sedative (or sleeping pill).
- Ear infections or nasal allergies – this can lead to a build up of fluid in the ear and tinnitus.
- Ear wax or foreign objects – these ‘obstructions’ in the external ear block background noise and will increase tinnitus as they make you more aware of your own head sounds.
- Head injury – tinnitus can arise because of brain damage
- Diseases of the inner ear - eg. Meniere’s syndrome
- Other health conditions such as an overactive thyroid or anaemia
In rare cases tinnitus can be a symptom of a brain aneurysm or a brain tumour
Prevention of Tinnitus
Avoiding loud noises and preventing the build up of ear-wax are the first steps. Don’t forget that the recent popularity of ‘in-ear’ headphones means that you don’t have to go to a rock concert to experience loud noises.
Treatment of Tinnitus
Although very occasionally, tinnitus is associated with a life-threatening health problem, in most cases, tinnitus is a symptom of a benign underlying condition. If you are at all worried about your tinnitus, seek the advice of your GP who will exclude an easily treatable cause of your tinnitus such as ear wax, build up of fluid in the ear or an ear infection.
Medical treatment of severe tinnitus can include:
- Use of prescribed drug medication such as tranquillisers and anti-depressants
- Electrical stimulation of certain nerves
- Use of a ‘tinnitus masker’
- Sound or music therapy
If there is no major underlying cause for your tinnitus and if your symptoms of tinnitus are mild, your doctor will probably not prescribe medication or invasive treatment for the condition.
In these situations, there are a number of self-help steps you can take:
- Avoid tea / coffee and salt – they can worsen tinnitus
- Avoid loud noises and use of ear phones
- Use an extract of Ginkgo biloba leaves
- Take a zinc supplement