What is it?
It is audible sound produced by our bodies.
How common is it?
Doubtlessly all people have heard ringing in their ears at some time. However, there is a big difference between this and tinnitus being responsible for serious disruptions to one’s daily life. About 1% of adults in England have such serious cases of tinnitus. Eight percent report that they have trouble sleeping because of tinnitus, or they feel it is a problem that they find especially disturbing.
What causes it?
We can divide tinnitus into two broad categories: 1) that which is produced by the organs next to the ear, such as blood vessels, joints and muscles, and 2) that produced by the ear itself.
Normally, we do not hear the sounds that our bodies produce. This is because external environmental sound, which exists even in a quiet room, is enough to mask them. Nonetheless, when we are in a place that is particularly quiet, it is possible to hear a throbbing sound, or our pulse.
- We are able to hear the sounds of our bodies when something prevents the noise of our surroundings from reaching our ear. Cerumen (earwax) is the most frequent cause of tinnitus. Also hearing loss in the elderly, otitis (inflammation of the middle ear) and otosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the middle ear) all may cause such blockages.
- There are different conditions in which the sounds our bodies make are so loud that they cannot be masked by the noise around us. This may occur either during pregnancy, or with certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure, anaemia, hypothyroidism, stenosis (narrowing) and other disorders of the blood vessels.
- There are also conditions which affect the inner ear or the auditory nerve. It has been proven that prolonged exposure to loud noises from machines or weapons, for example, can lead not only to hearing loss, but also tinnitus, and as a result, damage to the hearing nerve.
The first thing the specialist must attend to is to clarify whether there is specific damage requiring immediate care (e.g. cerumen, otitis), or even surgical intervention, such as a brain tumor, which is usually benign. You may have to undergo certain tests, which in the case of a tumor especially, will be particularly helpful for the attending specialist to plan treatment.
If the investigation concludes that tinnitus is caused by a condition that cannot be radically treated, then there are the following possibilities:
Most likely the specialist will initially test the effectiveness of medications. These medications are not always effective, but very often alleviate the severity of the tinnitus dramatically. If you do not see any benefits from taking the medication after a few months, then there is no reason to continue taking it.
If you can’t sleep because of tinnitus.
- Many people find the “tick-tock” of an old-fashioned clock effective
- It could be useful to try out the radio. Try to fall asleep listening to music at a level which just masks the tinnitus. If that doesn’t work, then adjust the radio to a point between two FM stations so that it produces noise. There are also clock radios which can be set to switch off automatically so that they do not stay on all night. So as to not disturb your partner, you can listen with earphones or ear-buds.
- You may need a light sleeping pill, which would be best, however, to avoid.
If you have tinnitus along with hearing loss, then a hearing aid is the most effective solution. Hearing with the help of a hearing aid, and hearing environmental sounds at the same time, “masks” tinnitus.
If the tinnitus is too loud and irritating that all the above means are not effective, then you could get earphones that produce sound aiming to cover tinnitus with artificial sound.
- Tinnitus can be extremely annoying, but it is not dangerous as long as your doctor has tested for and ruled out any serious illness.
- The more you have your mind on it, the more bothersome it becomes. For that reason, occupy yourself with anything but tinnitus.
- It is very important that you quit smoking.
- Do not drink coffee, tea, tonic water, sprite or seven-up because they have properties which exacerbate tinnitus.
- Bear in mind that there are specialist psychologists who can help you cope with the problem you are facing.