Many of us will have experienced the sensation of hearing sounds that seem to be coming from nowhere other than deep inside our own heads and ears – perhaps a high-pitched ringing, or hissing sound.
Thankfully for most of us, these sounds will be nothing more than a mild and temporary irritation – but for some people, tinnitus can become a significant problem.
CAN’T SWITCH IT OFF
Not everybody who experiences tinnitus will be severely affected, but in some cases, the relentless noise can have a big impact on quality of life and psychological wellbeing, causing distress and difficulty sleeping and concentrating, in turn affecting work and relationships and, as the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) points out, can be linked with anxiety and depression.
However, while there’s currently no cure, Tony Kay, head of Audiology Services at Aintree University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool and a member of BTA’s Professional Advisers’ Committee, is keen to highlight that support is out there – and there is hope.
“The first thing is not to be alarmed, but if you think you may have tinnitus, you should see your doctor, who will check your ears and offer general advice. You may also get referred to a tinnitus clinic,” he explains.
“It’s also important to clarify that while tinnitus is not curable in most, it does tend to get less annoying over time for the majority. Anybody with tinnitus that is troublesome should seek a referral to a tinnitus clinic via their GP.”
BETTER WITH TIME
Often, when ‘hidden’ problems are causing us distress, the simple step of talking to a doctor, or anybody with an understanding of your problem, and having it openly acknowledged that it’s getting you down can be a massive weight off the shoulders.
Kay, who also facilitates a support group, notes that a number of things can really help with managing tinnitus.
“In the vast majority of cases, tinnitus is managed rather than cured, and modern therapies are effective for most. Using background noise to reduce the intrusiveness of it, relaxation, keeping active and socialising may improve things. Studies have shown that over time, tinnitus becomes less intrusive as the brain loses interest in it; a process called habituation.”
There’s lots of information on the BTA website too, and local support groups, Kay adds, will probably be beneficial.
WHAT CAUSES TINNITUS?
Tinnitus is actually considered a symptom, rather than a single disease, “related to changes in activity or connectivity within the hearing system and brain”.
Although often seen as something that affects older people, anybody can experience tinnitus, even children. However, it’s far more common in older age groups, affecting around 10% of UK adults. “The prevalence of tinnitus generally increases with age, affecting males and females more or less equally. The main risk factor is hearing loss,” adds Kay. “Exposure to loud noise, ear infections, certain medications, stress and head injuries are some of the other risk factors.”
Where infections, or blockages with wax, are involved, treating these can relieve tinnitus. The link with stress is more complex, but it’s generally recognised that stress and anxiety may act as a ‘trigger’, or make people more acutely aware of tinnitus – a pattern that’s seen across a range of health issues.
Exposure to loud noise, however, is a major factor – and one we can all try to prevent, by being aware of what amounts to ‘dangerous’ noise levels and taking steps to protect our hearing, by using ear guards and earplugs. This can be particularly important for people who regularly work in noisy environments, but is something everybody should be aware of, as even the volumes of our TVs, and listening to music with headphones, could be putting us at risk of hearing loss and tinnitus.
PREVENTION BETTER THAN CURE
“Prevention is better than cure, so being ‘sound aware’ should be your aim,” stresses Kay. “We’re not saying avoid – just be more aware of the potential hazards of loud noise. Our ears tend to be tough in most cases, but we only have one pair, so looking after them will enable us to go on enjoying music for a long time.
“Don’t turn it off but turn it down and protect, is the general rule of thumb.”