The word ‘tinnitus’ comes from the Latin word for ‘ringing’. It describes the perception of sound without any external cause. It is often described as ringing in the ears, but is also known to sound like buzzing, roaring, hissing, whistling, humming or a combination of several sounds.
Tinnitus can occur continuously or intermittently, and can affect one or both ears. It can occur gradually over time or suddenly, and is usually accompanied by hearing loss. Tinnitus is incredibly common and most people will experience it at some point in their lives. Depending on the severity it can range from being mildly annoying to very distressing for the sufferer.
There are two types of tinnitus:
- Subjective tinnitus – Sound is only heard by the patient. This is the most common form of tinnitus.
- Objective tinnitus – actual noise is generated by structures near the ear and can be heard by other people as well as the patient. This is very rare.
Causes of Tinnitus
It is often difficult to establish the exact cause of tinnitus. One of the most common causes is thought to be damage to the hair cells in the inner ear, either due to age or exposure to loud noises. The damage may cause the tiny hair cells in the cochlea to lay flat and ‘leak’ random electrical impulses to the brain via the auditory nerve, which the brain interprets as sound.
Conditions affecting the middle ear can also cause tinnitus, such as infection or wax build up. Tinnitus can also be caused by the following:
Meniere’s disease – This is rare a disorder of the inner ear that affects balance. Tinnitus is often accompanied by vertigo, hearing loss and a feeling of fullness in the ears.
Ear bone changes – Conditions such as Otosclerosis (fixation of the tiny stirrup bone in the middle ear) can result in tinnitus.
Injury – Physical trauma to the head, neck or jaw can result in a ringing sensation in the ears.
Certain medications – Ototoxic drugs, such as those used to treat chemotherapy, can cause damage to the ear. Common drugs such as aspirin can cause temporary tinnitus and hearing loss in large doses.
Treatment for Tinnitus
Although there is no cure for tinnitus, many people benefit from the variety of treatments available. You may find your tinnitus improves after being fitted with a hearing aid, as being able to hear everyday environmental sounds can help to mask it. However, other treatments can be used with your hearing aids to further alleviate tinnitus.
We understand tinnitus affects everyone differently, so our experts will assess you to determine the best treatment or combination of treatments to help you manage it. We aim to help you understand your tinnitus and the solutions available to you. Read below for details of the tinnitus management that we offer.
You may find your tinnitus is more profound when you are in a quiet environment or when you are trying to go to sleep. Sound therapy (enrichment) can help you to manage and habituate your tinnitus by providing background noise in quiet situations. It involves listening to environmental sounds, such as the ocean or wind, white noise or other sound effects to make your tinnitus less intrusive.
There are several sound therapy products that are helpful for sleep, relaxation and concentration, including:
- Table top speakers – Portable speakers that provide a choice of soothing sounds at the touch of a button. They feature a timer that you can set for the speaker to automatically shut off (for when you are going to sleep) and volume control.
- Pillow speakers – A speaker or speakers that can be placed into or beneath a pillow. The speakers can be connected to a sound source, such as an MP3 player or tinnitus relaxer to aid sleep and relieve tinnitus without disturbing your sleeping partner. Normal pillows with speakers already inside are also available.
- Wearable sound generators/tinnitus relaxers – A device that sits inside the ear, it produces constant low-level noise (usually white noise).
After a while, you may find you need to use these devices less often as you become habituated to the tinnitus. Also, when using sound therapy devices, we advise setting them to a volume that ‘blends’ with the tinnitus noise rather than one that drowns it out completely. Otherwise, your tinnitus can feel more severe when the devices are not in use.
Counselling can teach you how to cope with tinnitus. By working with our audiologists, you can learn a variety of breathing, relaxation and distraction techniques to help manage the stress of tinnitus. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) may also be beneficial.