Do you hear ringing or noise that nobody else hears?
Tinnitus: Symptoms, causes and management
If you have tinnitus, you may hear whistling, ringing, humming, hissing or pounding in your ears for no apparent reason. Many people experience tinnitus at some point in their life. For one in every five people, tinnitus is permanent, but management options are available.
How does tinnitus affect you?
Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no corresponding external sound is present. If you are affected by tinnitus, silence may be especially annoying, because tinnitus can become more intense when there is no background noise. Why the inner ear and brain generate these sounds remains a mystery to scientists. Tinnitus can be a very bothersome condition which affects each person differently.
The constant noise can be an ongoing concern and frustration affecting concentration and interfering with your sleep. Tinnitus may differ from person to person in terms of sound, pitch, volume and level of perception. It can be perceived in just one ear, or more centrally, such as in the middle of the head. Tinnitus can occur intermittently, in wave-like intervals or be a permanent, ever-present noise. Tinnitus is commonly associated with hearing loss as well.
Why tinnitus happens
Even though nobody else can hear the noise, tinnitus isn’t an imaginary illness. Still, how can you hear a sound that doesn’t exist? Scientists aren’t completely sure.
The most widely accepted theory is that it’s a spontaneous reaction of your brain’s central hearing system. It may be due to damaged hair cells in the inner ear. Since hearing is affected, the brain tries to amplify or restore the missing sounds, which leads to tinnitus.
A question of perception
If you perceive tinnitus as being severe, stress mechanisms may be activated in your brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for processing emotions. This may lead to a vicious cycle: the more distressed you become, the more stress you experience, which triggers the limbic system, which then causes even more stress, leading to more symptoms.
It’s important to decide whether tinnitus is truly severe and debilitating (decompensated tinnitus) or mild to moderate (compensated tinnitus). This can be partly determined by how the condition affects your quality of life. For instance, decompensated tinnitus can cause sleep disruption, stress, anxiety, depression and social isolation. It can also be associated with headache, earache, dizziness or muscle tension.
What is objective tinnitus?
In this very rare condition, tinnitus noise can actually be detected and measured using special instruments. The cause is usually an anatomical abnormality in the blood vessels of the inner ear, a disturbance of the middle ear, or contamination of the ear canal near the eardrum. In most cases of tinnitus, however, no noise can be detected at all.
Subtypes of tinnitus
- It’s present for less than three months
- It typically disappears spontaneously
- Treatment with medication may help
- It occurs repeatedly within a period of three to 12 months
- Medication and/or relaxation exercises may bring about recovery
- Symptoms last for more than 12 months
- It usually requires therapeutic or medical management
Need some advice?
Talk to us about a tinnitus consultation.
Call us on 1300 209 826 (9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)
What causes and triggers tinnitus?
Although there are a number of theories, none of them have been proven. Still, some causes of irritating ear noises may be anatomical changes within the ears or injuries such as:
(acute sensitivity to noises)
Auditory canal blockage
Middle ear infection
(infection of the inner ear with dizziness, nausea and difficulty hearing)
(a benign tumor)
Causes outside of the hearing system may also trigger tinnitus:
Traumatic brain injury
(especially in the neck region)
How is tinnitus diagnosed?
Tinnitus is diagnosed by a hearing care professional who will gather information about previous illnesses, possible triggers and the ear noise itself. It’s important to explain the severity of your tinnitus and how it affects your quality of life.
Next, the hearing care professional will perform a hearing test, which will determine whether you have hearing loss or a hearing system disorder.
What types of tinnitus treatments are available?
Treatment of acute tinnitus (up to three months) may involve cortisone or circulation enhancing drugs. However, in the majority of cases, acute tinnitus disappears spontaneously.
For symptoms that persist for more than three months, no definitive treatment exists. However, there are management plans that may help improve your quality of life when dealing with chronic tinnitus. A hearing care professional will recommend the appropriate management for your type of tinnitus.
Tinnitus retraining therapy
Tinnitus retraining therapy is a practice that’s used to help you become accustomed to the noise so that you no longer notice it. This therapy enables the brain to gradually adjust to the tinnitus, so you don’t perceive the sound as intensely. Tinnitus retraining therapy is ideal for people with mild or chronic tinnitus. The most important factor for successful tinnitus retraining therapy is consistent and active cooperation and a positive attitude.
The three pillars of tinnitus retraining therapy
Pillar 1: Learn
As you understand more about tinnitus, the condition becomes less threatening.
Pillar 2: Sound therapy
By focusing on pleasant sounds (such as water fountains, sounds from nature or music), the tinnitus ear noises become less noticeable.
Pillar 3: Mental and physical well-being
There are multiple approaches to this, from behavioural and speech therapy, to yoga and Tai Chi.
Hearing aids and noise generators
In addition to retraining therapy, your hearing care professional may also recommend a hearing aid with a tinnitus noise generator. These devices work by improving how you hear natural external sounds. The noise generator also helps block out the sound of the tinnitus by using frequency matching. About 80% of people affected by tinnitus also experience some form of hearing loss. Often the tinnitus noises are at the exact frequency that you have the most trouble hearing.
Tips for dealing with tinnitus
Avoid stress. Practice relaxation techniques (eg yoga, Tai Chi).
Less alcohol & caffeine
Limit alcohol and caffeine consumption.
Do regular exercise: this helps relieve stress and distracts you from the tinnitus.
Get plenty of sleep. Adequate rest reduces the severity of tinnitus symptoms.
Engage in activities you enjoy. This distracts you from the tinnitus.
Always wear ear protection if you will be exposed to noise.
What should I do if I am affected by tinnitus?
Rapid onset, annoying ear noises usually disappear by themselves. Most of the time all you need to do is give yourself and your ears a break.
What if the ringing, whistling or hissing won’t stop?
If the noise lasts longer than 24 hours, you should see a doctor or hearing care professional. The sooner you take action the better the chances of having a better outcome, and potentially avoiding ongoing chronic tinnitus.
Who should I see about my tinnitus?
We recommend you see a hearing care professional.
Depending on the type and severity of your symptoms, your hearing care professional may set up a personalised management plan or refer you for additional specialist services.
Call 1300 209 826 (9am – 5pm, Monday – Friday)