Tinnitus. Even the name is irritating.
It’s estimated that around 10% of the UK population suffer from some kind of persistent ringing, hissing, grinding or buzzing noise with no apparent source. For most people, it’s something that comes and goes. But for some, tinnitus is like an unwelcome house guest who decides to take up residence permanently – a constant source of noise and irritation.
But where does this uninvited visitor come from, and do you really have to live with it? Or could there be a way to finally get some much-needed peace and quiet?
What causes tinnitus?
First of all, it’s worth noting that while tinnitus is often described as a ‘ringing in the ears’, your ears are rarely the guilty party here – after all, there’s no actual sound for them to pick up.
Instead, tinnitus is often the result of your brain creating a false sense of hearing, probably caused by some kind of internal ‘crossed wires’ or an underlying condition. This means we often have to dig a little deeper to find the root cause.
The most common conditions which lead to tinnitus are:
- Age-related hearing loss (or preceybis, to use its medical name). This condition typically starts around age 60, although onset can happen at any time. As well as reducing hearing accuracy, it can also result in tinnitus. In a very basic sense, this happens because our brains ‘turn up the volume’ to compensate for reduced hearing. This is a real double blow for many people, as the sounds you want to hear often seem too quiet while those you can do without sound amplified.
- Exposure to loud noises, whether that’s music, machinery or something else, can also result in tinnitus. Many people experience a ringing sensation for hours after attending a loud musical concert and prolonged exposure to high volumes can result in these sounds becoming permanent.
- While the reasons remain unclear, there appears to be a link between tinnitus and unhealthy lifestyles. In particular, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or caffeine, eating certain foods, and being regularly fatigued or stressed could all leave you more prone to tinnitus.
- Medical conditions such as anemia, diabetes, an underactive thyroid, and allergies are all related to tinnitus. Physical traumas such as a blow to the neck or head can also result in tinnitus.
How can we treat tinnitus?
Because tinnitus is a symptom, not a condition, the best way to relieve it is often to look at the underlying cause. For some people, lifestyle changes or helping their body to heal could be enough to reduce tinnitus or make it go away altogether.
If tinnitus is caused by age-related hearing loss or another permanent cause, it may not be possible to remove. However, we can still help people manage long-term tinnitus so it becomes less noticeable.
- Sound therapy provides many people with much-needed relief from tinnitus. Using ambient background sounds helps to balance out the perception of hearing. After all, the sound in your head appears loudest when your environment is silent, so some gentle noise can make things feel a little easier. Portable music players and smartphones can also be used to provide relief from tinnitus when you’re away from home.
- Stress relief can also greatly reduce the severity of tinnitus. Because stress is shown to increase the effects of tinnitus, talking therapy and mental exercises that relax your mind can have the opposite result of making your tinnitus appear less intense.
We understand that many people feel helpless to treat their tinnitus and choose not to seek professional help. But whatever you do, please don’t let tinnitus win without a fight. We can help you take control of your situation and make sure it doesn’t stand in the way of you enjoying a rich and varied life.
Is there hope on the horizon?
A lot of research is being carried out into a breakthrough cure for tinnitus, some of which look very promising and could offer exciting new options for treatment in as little as “a year or two”.
Dr Michael Kilgard, professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas, is currently exploring a clever technique called Vagus Nerve Stimulation. In essence, the vagus nerve tells our brain what’s going on inside our body. By stimulating it with small electrical pulses, it can be tricked into telling the brain something important is happening. In Dr Kilgard’s technique, it is tricked into re-teaching the brain how to respond to certain sounds.
How effective is it? Well, according to the published results, about half of the patients being trialled saw their tinnitus reduced by half. As Dr Kilgard admits, “it’s not 100% yet” but that is still reason for cautious optimism. What’s more, he hopes this treatment could be widely available in the near future. “It’s in the late stages of development,” he says. “It could be available to the public in as little as a year or two.”
Other researchers are also looking at ways to retrain our brain to mitigate the effects of tinnitus and, like Dr Kilgard, hope to find a solution that will provide some welcome peace and quiet to millions of tinnitus sufferers around the world.
Naturally, we’ll keep you posted as soon as any new treatments emerge.
Are you living with tinnitus?
It’s tinnitus awareness week on February 4th – 11th. If you or someone you care about is living with tinnitus, what better time to seek professional advice and see if the worst effects could be reduced or removed entirely?
We can recommend a personalised treatment that could help you reduce the irritation of tinnitus and get on with living your life.
About Sevenoaks Hearing
At Sevenoaks Hearing, we provide a bespoke hearing service, using state-of-the-art technology to provide an accurate diagnosis and an effective solution. As we are independent of any manufacturer, we can also provide the best solution for your lifestyle. Find out about our hearing assessments and other treatment services.
Written by Matt Cannon, Lead Audiologist at Sevenoaks Hearing. Visit our independent hearing centres in Sevenoaks, Banstead and East Grinstead or book an appointment now.