Tinnitus is the perception of a sound when there is actually no sound present. Most people with tinnitus experience it as a ‘buzzing’, ‘ringing’ or ‘static’ like sound present in one or both ears. Its severity can range from a trivial annoyance through to a severe and debilitating experience that interferes with all aspects of life.
For most people tinnitus is most noticeable when things are quiet. Hence some people have difficulty sleeping, as tinnitus is worse at night. Tinnitus is often made worse by stress, anxiety and depression.
Causes of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is most commonly associated with hearing loss. As hearing loss becomes more severe, so too does the tinnitus in most cases. It may also be noticed in association with exposure to loud sounds such as blasts and loud concerts.
Ear problems such as infections, wax build-up, Meniere’s disease and Otosclerosis may also feature tinnitus while it may be a side effect of some medications.
In rare instances, tinnitus may be a sign of a more serious illness. ENT surgeons are most concerned about tinnitus that is in one ear only or has a pulsing nature.
Assessment of Tinnitus
A comprehensive history and an examination of the ear can help to identify the problem and rule out some of the serious causes of tinnitus. In most instances a hearing test will be helpful and in some cases a scan of the head and neck may be necessary.
Treatments available for Tinnitus
In most cases, tinnitus is mild and can be managed with simple measures to limit its intrusion on life. Some options include:
- Using a hearing aid if hearing loss is present;
- Utilising ‘white noise’ such as a fan or low-level music to "distract";
- Management of anxiety and depression if present;
- Avoidance of stimulants such as caffeine;
- Avoidance of exposure to loud noises and the use of hearing protection;
- Ensuring you have a healthy sleep pattern; and
- Minimise stress.
Should the above fail to manage the tinnitus effectively, there are other options available, but none are consistently effective in controlling the tinnitus. Some people will have good success, but others may not and it is very hard to predict just who may benefit. Options include:
- Tinnitus retraining (Neuromonics);
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for tinnitus as such. Most people learn to ignore the tinnitus over time as the brain adapts.