It is called “tinnitus” – the perception of a ringing or other type of sound in the ear, often affecting one or both ears. While most of us have anecdotally heard about tinnitus, it is often difficult for those who are not affected to fully comprehend the extent a ‘noise in your head’ can impact one’s day-to-day life. Overall, we distinguish between subjective tinnitus – the type that only the individual can hear and objective tinnitus – the type a practitioner can hear during an examination. The type of noise can range from a high-pitched ringing or buzzing to a low-frequency roaring or humming. Some people describe it like crickets or cicadas. Around 15-20% of the population is affected by tinnitus, for some, periodically and others permanently. For about 2% of the population, tinnitus can have a wide-ranging and debilitating effect on life and it is important to make sure it is not simply dismissed but properly investigated.
Why only some people develop tinnitus is not very well understood. What is known though, is that stress, lack of sleep and especially noise exposure can trigger episodes of tinnitus. Often the symptoms get more severe the longer the stressful situation lasts. But there is also a multitude of other reasons and contributing factors to why someone would experience tinnitus. These include ear wax, blocked sinuses, medication, and pathological causes. The path to relief can also vary from person to person. Let’s look at it step by step.
To start getting to the bottom of a person’s tinnitus’ origin it is helpful to know that tinnitus is not always a condition in itself, but it may signal an underlying condition. A hearing care professional is a great place to start the investigation. One of the first steps when looking into tinnitus treatment options should be a tinnitus assessment consultation. The results will pinpoint the degree of impact the tinnitus has on one’s life. For example, to what degree it affects their ability to rest or enjoy social settings. A comprehensive hearing assessment should also be part of this assessment as tinnitus is often but not necessarily related to hearing loss. Results may offer clues of the cause and potential treatment options. Some clinics specialise in tinnitus treatment and may offer further in-depth analysis. Depending on the result, the hearing care professional may refer a person to a medical practitioner or might suggest a few options to investigate.
Dependent on the cause for the tinnitus and how each individual reacts to it the treatment can also be vastly different from person to person. Treatment options may include therapy by amplification with hearing aids or masking the tinnitus with external sounds. There is also a range of apps available – many of them free of charge. The better ones can offer a choice of soundscapes to enjoy and mask the tinnitus. Another way to learn to deal with tinnitus includes CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy. This is a process during which a practitioner, often a psychologist, will use the neuroplasticity of the brain to learn to accept and therefore ignore the disrupting sound.
While there is no one specific ‘cure’ for tinnitus there is a range of things that can be done to help and improve the situation significantly. A hearing care professional or GP is the best place to start on the journey to relief.