What is Tinnitus? How Can I Treat it?
Tinnitus is the name given to the condition of noises in the ear(s) and/or in the head with no external source. Tinnitus noises are described variously as ringing, whistling, buzzing and humming.
Almost all of us experience tinnitus occasionally. However, it can become a problem when this noise persists and/or increases.
Every person has his or her level of tolerance to the tinnitus sounds. It is a very personal and individual experience. Some people learn to live with tinnitus quite quickly. For others, it may become very bothersome or disturbing.
People with problematic tinnitus may experience:
- Sleeping problems and resultant fatigue
- Stress, annoyance, irritation, anxiety
- Despair, frustration, depression
These factors resulting from tinnitus can aggravate tinnitus, so a “tinnitus cycle” is created.
What Causes Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is not a disease or an illness. It is a symptom generated within a person’s auditory pathways. The precise cause of tinnitus is still not fully understood, but it is frequently associated with some degree of hearing loss.
Factors that may result in or contribute to tinnitus include (but are not limited to):
- Hearing loss – particularly noise-induced, but also age-related or other
- Certain medications (such as large doses of aspirin, arthritis medication)
- Head, neck or ear injuries
- Conditions of the ear such as infections, Meniere’s disease, or acoustic neuroma
- Compacted ear wax
- Jaw joint (temporomandibular joint) dysfunction
The sound of your tinnitus can sometimes determine the possible underlying cause.
- Clicking sound – this implies that the cause of your tinnitus may be the musculature around your ear.
- Pulsing or rushing – this suggests that the cause of your tinnitus may be vascular.
- Low-pitched ringing – this type of sound may suggest ear wax blockage or an ear condition such as Meniere’s.
High-pitched ringing (cicadas) – the most common tinnitus sound and causes include hearing loss and noise exposure. An acoustic neuroma (a “pinched nerve” or a nerve tumour) can also be associated with this tinnitus sound. If it is a neuroma, the tinnitus will be located only in one ear.
Factors that may aggravate tinnitus include:
- Alcohol, caffeine and smoking
- Loud noise
- Stress and fatigue
What Should I do if I have Tinnitus?
Making an appointment with a qualified Audiologist should be the first step.
An Audiologist will perform the following:
- An otoscopy – examine the ear canals.
- A thorough case history.
- A comprehensive hearing assessment.
The Audiologist will discuss the results from their examination and may give an opinion about the possible cause.
- If the results dictate, a referral to an Ear Nose and Throat Specialist to investigate the cause would be recommended.
- The Audiologist will explain why tinnitus is perceived and the basis for distress and annoyance.
- The Audiologist will develop an individualised treatment plan.
What Can I Do About Tinnitus?
There is no magical cure for tinnitus unless related to an easily reversed cause such as ear wax build-up. However, several strategies can be used to minimise the impact of tinnitus on your life.
Strategies for Dealing with Tinnitus
1) Sound Therapy
Sound therapy is the most common and scientifically backed method to aid in habituation to your tinnitus. Habituation aims to break the “cycle of distress” and reduce how conscious you are of your tinnitus.
Sound Therapy involves the use of a sound source as well as counselling.
2) Hearing Aids
When tinnitus is accompanied by hearing loss, hearing aids can be very helpful in ‘masking’ tinnitus. By amplifying external sounds, hearing aids can reduce your awareness of tinnitus. Hearing aids also make communication easier, which reduces stress and fatigue. Minimising these factors can help to break the tinnitus cycle.
Most modern hearing aids also have “Tinnitus Masker Sounds” capability. A common one is the sound of ocean waves. Use masker sounds when you are in a quiet environment and need a sound source to distract you from the tinnitus.
3) Create Auditory Distractions
Many people find their tinnitus most noticeable at night. As the din of daily activities subsides, tinnitus becomes more prominent.
If tinnitus bothers you in quiet situations, try creating gentle background noise, such as music or a tape or CD of environmental sounds to help distract you from your tinnitus.
Some people even find that quiet radio static can be helpful when trying to get to sleep.
4) Stress Management
If your tinnitus becomes more problematic in times of stress or anxiety, consider looking into stress management techniques or relaxation exercises.
5) Protect Your Ears
Many people who have noise-induced hearing loss and accompanying tinnitus assume that the damage has been done, so there is no point in using hearing protection for noisy activities (such as using power tools or mowing the lawn). In fact, damage to the ear has a cumulative effect so further noise exposure can result in further deterioration in hearing and worsening of tinnitus symptoms.
It is never too late to start protecting your ears with earplugs or earmuffs in noisy workplaces and for noise activities.
6) TMJ Treatment
Tinnitus can be a symptom of a jaw joint (temporomandibular joint, or TMJ) dysfunction. This happens because muscles and nerves in the jaw are closely connected to those in the ear and, under the right circumstances, can interfere with the ear’s nerves. Dental treatment or bite realignment can help relieve TMJ pain and associated tinnitus.
7) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
CBT has been successful in treating tinnitus. This is a specialised counselling therapy that is offered by qualified psychologists.
8) Alternative Medicine
While there is little scientific evidence for these, anecdotally, they have shown to be effective for some people.
These alternative options include:
- Ginkgo biloba
- Zinc supplements
I Have Tinnitus. What’s my Next Step?
Book in to see a qualified audiologist with experience in tinnitus treatment.
Audiology Trio provides tinnitus assessment and treatment or referral to other specialists if required.