Courtesy of the British Tinnitus Association.
The word 'tinnitus' (pronounced ti-ni-tis) comes from the Latin word for 'ringing' and is the perception of sound in the absence of any corresponding external sound. It is not a disease or illness; it is a symptom generated within the auditory system. The noise may be in one or both ears, or in the head, or it may be difficult to pinpoint its exact location. The noise may be low, medium or high pitched. It may be a single noise or two or more components. The noise may be continuous or it may come and go.
Experiences of tinnitus are very common in all age groups, especially following exposure to loud noise. About 10% of the UK adult population has permanent tinnitus.
The causes of tinnitus are still not fully understood, but tinnitus can be associated with:
- Hearing loss - the delicate hair cells in the inner ear may reduce in number due to ‘wear and tear’ as people age. This gradual change can cause hearing loss, which makes tinnitus more noticeable as it is not masked by external sound. Exposure to loud noise - hair cells can also be damaged by exposure to loud noise, which could generate tinnitus.
- Stress and anxiety - it is not always clear whether stress causes the onset of tinnitus. However, tinnitus may be more noticeable if you are anxious or stressed.
- Ear infections - middle ear infections can cause hearing loss and tinnitus. Symptoms will normally be temporary, but it is important to have the underlying infection treated by a GP.
Tinnitus is rarely an indication of a serious disorder, but it is wise to see your doctor if you think you have it. Your GP will be able to refer you to specialist Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) and Audiology services. An ENT specialist will take a medical history from you, perform a clinical examination and arrange for any tests. You should then be referred to the Audiology service for help in managing your tinnitus.
There are several strategies that can be very helpful in managing the condition:
- Information - you will probably feel better when you find out more about the condition, that it is very common and that you are not alone.
- Counselling - techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be helpful, either as a standalone therapy or combined with sound therapy.
- Correcting any hearing loss - if your tinnitus is accompanied by any hearing loss, then trying to correct this loss with hearing aids is often very helpful.
- Sound therapy - if the noises seem louder at quiet times, particularly during the night, it may help to have some environmental or natural sound from a CD, a sound generator, or even a fan or ticking clock in the background. Some people use in-ear sound generators.
- Relaxation - learning to relax is probably one of the most useful things you can do to help yourself. Those who practice relaxation techniques say they reduce the loudness of their tinnitus and helps them become indifferent to it.
Studies have indicated that, over time, the noises disappear completely or at least diminish to a tolerable threshold level in most cases, as the brain loses interest and stops surveying the signal. This process is called ‘habituation’. The length of time this takes varies from person to person - but it does happen.
British Tinnitus Association
The British Tinnitus Association is a world leader, with a trained team of friendly and experienced advisers for anyone who experiences tinnitus or those simply seeking guidance or information about the condition.
If you would like to talk to someone about tinnitus, you can telephone the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) helpline on 0800 018 0527 and speak in confidence to one of their friendly advisers, who have years of experience in talking to people with tinnitus.
The BTA can also put you in touch with a support group or contact if there is one in your area. Groups are run by people who are living with tinnitus - personal contact and shared experience are very useful for many people with tinnitus.
The helpline can also give you details of the BTA’s wide range of information leaflets on tinnitus and associated subjects. They can also be downloaded free of charge from the BTA’s website.