Tinnitus – Literally Suffering in Silence

Ringing in the ears affects approximately 10-15% of people on a regular basis

Tinnitus, commonly known as ‘ringing in the ears’ is more common than you may think. Most people think they’re alone in experiencing it because it’s not something we typically discuss. No one goes out for coffee and says to their friends: “Hey, do you hear that? That high-pitched squeal?” Mostly it’s because tinnitus tends to be more noticeable in a quiet environment, like when you’re lying in bed at night, trying to go to sleep. But also, people often think tinnitus is ‘all in their mind’ so they tend not to bring it up in general conversation. The truth is, tinnitus is absolutely not all in the mind.

Tinnitus is real, you’re not imagining it

It’s believed that around 18% of Australians are affected by tinnitus. Studies have shown that as much as 98% of the population will experience tinnitus in a room that is quiet enough, such as an acoustics laboratory. For some, it comes and goes without rhyme or reason. For others, it’s constantly there. How much it disturbs your quality of life depends on a variety of factors. But first, let’s explore what tinnitus is.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the medical term for ‘ringing in the ears’. The sounds don’t exist in the environment and only the sufferer can hear them, which is why it seems to be an imaginary condition. It generally sounds like a high-pitched ringing but for some people, it can sound like whistling, hissing, blowing, buzzing, humming, sizzling or roaring. The noises can be barely detectable, or they can be debilitatingly loud.

You may have heard of ‘phantom pain’ which is when a person who has lost a hand reports that they can still feel pain as if the hand was still there. Neuroscientists believe that since the brain is used to receiving sensory signals from that part of the body, when the signals cease, the brain steps in and generates its own signals around what the hand is doing. In tinnitus caused by hearing loss – however mild or significant the loss – the phantom pain theory suggests a similar mechanism is in play. The brain is used to receiving audio signals from the ear and when they are no longer detected, or are greatly reduced, the brain generates its own signals or sounds to compensate. This is a dysfunction and it’s undesirable but you really have to hand it to the brain for being so clever!

Who suffers from tinnitus?

Frankly, tinnitus can affect people of all ages, genders, races and hearing abilities. Here are the most common risk factors:

  • Ageing – The older you get, the nerve fibres in your ears deteriorate, leading to gradual hearing loss and quite often, tinnitus.

  • Smoking – You have a higher risk of experiencing tinnitus if you smoke.

  • Gender – Though men and women get tinnitus, the number of men is higher.

  • Cardiovascular issues – Those with high blood pressure or atherosclerosis (narrowed arteries) have an increased risk of tinnitus.

  • Exposure to loud noise – People who work in noisy places such as factories and airport tarmacs are more susceptible. Of course, those who subject their ears to loud music such as at concerts or through headphones up too loud are prime candidates for tinnitus.

What makes tinnitus worse?

Just when you thought your tinnitus was mildly annoying, you find it gets worse sometimes. There are the three main factors that can cause it to worsen:

1. Silence – The quieter the environment, the louder the tinnitus. Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, your brain is going to try to compensate for those missing sounds, and in a quiet room such as your bedroom at night, you’ll notice them even more.

2. Sleep deprivation – Scientists the world over have documented that a lack of sleep worsens tinnitus.

3. Stress – To date, the exact link between tinnitus and stress isn’t known but they are undoubtedly related. When we are under stress, our bodies can experience a ‘fight or flight’ response. The body is on ‘high alert’ to deal with this unwelcome situation and one of the ways it responds is by heightening our sense of hearing. Of course, that makes even low-level tinnitus more noticeable. Most sufferers report that their tinnitus is worse when they are stressed and for many, their first experience of tinnitus was during a period of great stress.

What to do about your tinnitus

It is important to note that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to tinnitus management and recent research recommends a personalised approach under the guidance of an Audiologist. Here are some broad strategies that will help you in your quest to deal with your tinnitus.

  • Have your hearing checked – One of the most common causes of tinnitus is hearing loss. Even mild hearing loss can cause tinnitus and many people are not aware that their hearing has deteriorated because it usually happens so gradually. Make an appointment with an Independent Audiologist who will test your hearing with state-of-the-art medical equipment that will accurately diagnose your hearing, from perfect to however impacted it may be. Aside from providing you with a proper diagnosis which will mean you’ll know how to treat your tinnitus, your Independent Audiologist will be able to reassure you about your specific situation. A word of warning though; consulting ‘Dr Google’ may unearth some misleading claims about tinnitus that could cause you unnecessary concern.

  • Avoid silence – You would already be aware that silence can make your tinnitus more noticeable. Some sufferers find that having the radio or TV on at a low volume can be helpful. White noise apps and devices designed to put babies to sleep can also be helpful in making the silence less stark to your ears. The volume of the tinnitus sound will be reduced against the background noise that you introduce. If using apps, the radio or TV when going to sleep, check to see if your smartphone or other device has a ‘sleep’ function which turns the sound off after a period of time that you choose. Or, you may prefer to leave it on all night.

  • Manage your stress – Find ways of reducing your stress. If you can’t avoid the stressful situations in the first place, then work on ways to take the pressure off, such as walking, having a massage, listening to relaxing music or reading a book you enjoy.

Is there a cure for tinnitus?

Unfortunately, there’s no complete cure for tinnitus but there most definitely are effective treatments. The goal is to take it from being troublesome and intrusive to something you may experience from time to time, and not at the same volume.

If you or someone you care about is bothered by tinnitus, contact us today for a hearing assessment. We’d really love to help.

#tinnitus #hearingaid #hearlingloss