An introduction to tinnitus
Most people experience tinnitus at some point in their lives – for example, when you go into a very quiet room, you become aware of a background noise in your ears. In addition, many people do experience the odd bout when tinnitus increases in intensity, but these usually disappear quickly.
People who suffer tinnitus find that the sounds are present all the time with a tendency to affect their quality of life.
Tinnitus is described in various ways, but most commonly as ringing in the ears. It is usually a continuous sound, but some people describe the sounds coming in pulses.
Many people think that tinnitus is a disease or an illness, but it is in fact a symptom related to an underlying physical (or sometimes, psychological) problem. The symptom has been known for centuries and historical records show that it was first described by the Egyptians.
Who gets tinnitus?
Tinnitus can affect anyone. It is thought that about 10% of the population frequently suffer from the symptoms. For around 5% of these, symptoms are persistent and troublesome, affecting their quality of life by preventing them from falling asleep, for example.
Tinnitus is found in men and women equally. It may occasionally occur in children but most commonly affects those of between 40 and 70 years of age.
Symptoms of tinnitus
Tinnitus is often referred to as a ringing in the ears. Other terms used to describe the symptom include whistling, hissing, buzzing, whooshing, humming or singing.
Tinnitus can be experienced in either one or both ears. Some people may hear one type of sound in one ear and a different sound in the other. Rhythmic sounds can also be heard – this is known as pulsatile tinnitus.
Symptoms of tinnitus have a wide range of severity. For some, it may be so mild that it does not trouble them at all, whilst for others, tinnitus can have a major impact on everyday activities.
Tinnitus can lead to a number of problems including stress, fatigue, trouble sleeping and relaxing, difficulty concentrating and depression. It may also affect work and social activities.
If you suffer from tinnitus, it is important to put some effort into identifying the cause of the problem as this will make it easier to find a suitable treatment.
Does tinnitus affect everybody in the same way?
Most people will experience tinnitus if left in complete silence in a sound-proofed room. In a quiet environment, 90-95% of people will report a temporary bout of tinnitus. Most of us will have experienced some tinnitus:
These occasional episodes of tinnitus are normal and part of the way our ears work. Tinnitus is only a problem when the noise perceived becomes louder than the normal environment around you and when you become continuously aware of the noise.
Tinnitus affects people differently and where one person with tinnitus may be able to adapt and ignore the problem, another may become irritable, angry and upset by the noises they hear. Although tinnitus can be an annoying symptom to deal with, there is a vast array of treatments and therapies available to help minimise tinnitus symptoms.
Causes of tinnitus
For many people suffering tinnitus, no obvious reason or cause can be identified.
However, for some, a number of health conditions can lead to tinnitus, including:
- Infections of the ear
- Ear wax
- Prescribed medication
- Loud noises
- High blood pressure
If the cause of tinnitus is clear, it may be easily treatable. For example, a person suffering an ear infection caused by bacteria will be treated using antibiotics. Or, a workman using a noisy drill without ear protection should use one.
The precise mechanism in the ear which gives rise to tinnitus is not fully understood, but it is thought that these ‘extra sounds’ come about as a result of a disturbance in the way nerves work when they send signals between the ear and the brain.
When to see your doctor
If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms described above which persist and think you have tinnitus, it is important to make an appointment with your doctor to receive a proper diagnosis.
Tinnitus is rarely a symptom of an underlying serious illness and it may be so that your doctor will not be able to identify the cause of your problem. However, it will be important to rule out a treatable cause such as an ear infection.
If your GP cannot find any specific cause for your tinnitus, she may refer you to an ENT specialist. As well as considering all your symptoms, tests may involve blood samples and a hearing and balance check. Tests may also include scans such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) but the exact tests and whether these are necessary will depend on your healthcare professional.
History of tinnitus treatments
Hearing noises in the ears is a symptom that has been known for centuries and there has been a wide variety of treatments used for the condition.
The first account of medical treatment for tinnitus symptoms dates back to the Egyptian times where a reed stalk was used to infuse oil, frankincense, tree sap, herbs and soil for the bewitched and humming ear. Other interesting treatments mentioned in early medical history include:
- Chanting words to get rid of the ‘whispering or singing’ in the ear by the Mesopotamians
- The Greco-Romans tried to relate tinnitus to a cause, for example if it was due to a cold they may have cleaned out the ear
- The middle ages favoured pouring of liquids into the ear
- In the Renaissance period, surgery was introduced as a treatment for tinnitus
How is tinnitus treated now?
If an underlying cause for tinnitus can be found, this will be the focus of treatment.
If not, conventional medicine approaches treatment by distracting the mind from the noise with the use of ‘maskers’, counselling and ensuring the sufferer understands the condition and treatment options in order to help them cope better with the condition.
There are however a number of other treatment methods that can be used to help manage tinnitus. These include: