Tinnitus is the term used when people hear sounds from inside their body, rather than from an exterior source. Often described as “ringing in the ears”, it encompasses a broad range of sounds including humming, buzzing, hissing, grinding and whistling.
It can lead to extreme distress for sufferers, many of whom feel unable to lead a normal everyday life because of the disruption tinnitus causes.
How can you get tinnitus?
Tinnitus is commonly associated with hearing loss as a result of damage to the inner ear. This accounts for two-thirds of cases.
The inner ear comprises the cochlea and auditory nerve. The cochlea can become damaged and as a result, the auditory nerve can’t transmit sound signals to the brain. This can lead to the brain seeking out signals from parts of the cochlea that are still working. It is believed this imbalance causes the sounds of tinnitus.
Damage to the cochlea can occur through continual exposure to excessive noise. Many people may have experienced a short period of tinnitus after exposure to loud noises – such as a concert, for example.
Other people who experience long-term exposure to loud noise – such as a noisy workplace with insufficient hearing protection – may also experience tinnitus.
How can tinnitus affect you?
Statistics show tinnitus affects around six million people in the UK, with 600,000 sufferers saying the severity of the condition adversely affects their lives. Many experience psychological side effects, impacting severely on their ability to enjoy any quality of life.
The problems experienced can include:
- Depression and emotional problems
- Feeling isolated
- Difficulty in maintaining concentration
- Feeling drained and tired
- Inability to work or enjoy leisure activities due to fatigue
- Sensitivity to sounds
For some people, tinnitus prevents them from socialising as they can’t tolerate music or even talking – they become increasingly isolated as a result.
Can you treat tinnitus?
There’s no specific cure for tinnitus, although research continues to seek an effective treatment. Removing a build-up of earwax can sometimes alleviate symptoms.
If the cause can’t be found, treatments are available to help people manage the symptoms, including:
- Listening to neutral sounds to detract from the tinnitus, known as sound therapy
- Counselling to help cope more effectively
- Cognitive behavioural therapy to try and make the tinnitus less noticeable
- Tinnitus retraining therapy to try and alter the way the brain responds to sounds
- Relaxation techniques
How can you prevent tinnitus?
Precautions can be taken to help prevent some kinds of tinnitus. An important precaution is to use efficient hearing protection to prevent exposure to loud noises that can damage the ears and cause loss of hearing.
If you use certain equipment in the workplace, such as noisy machinery or if you’re in the entertainment industry and are constantly exposed to loud music, always wear full hearing protection over your ears. Long-term exposure to loud music with no protection can eventually cause deafness as well as tinnitus.
Taking effective measures to prevent tinnitus is vital since there’s no cure – once the inner ear becomes irreparably damaged.