Tinnitus: What It Is And What To Do About it

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the main symptom of a range of conditions, including some ear infections and some types of hearing loss. It consists of ‘ringing’, hissing or other sounds such as whistling that appear to come from inside the head rather than from an external source. Most people with tinnitus experience it only occasionally – for example when there is background noise such as traffic or at times of day when it is quieter. However, about one in 50 people who get tinnitus describe it as very loud and uncomfortable, and often interfering with sleep and concentration. This type affects about 2% to 3% of adults in Western countries (Marchant et al 2001).

Tinnitus symptoms range from mild to severe and can vary in their severity for years at a time. Some people experience symptoms all the time, some only occasionally and some never at all.

The following symptoms/factors often seem to make tinnitus symptoms worse: stress, alcohol intake, sound exposure, being tired. The following problems have been reported more frequently by people with loud and annoying tinnitus than by those with milder forms: depression; irritation; poor sleep quality; concentration problems; hearing impairment due to noise damage or earwax build-up etc.

What is the cause of tinnitus?

It has been suggested that tinnitus results from co-ordinated activity in the brain, probably involving the hearing and balance parts of the nervous system (Moller, 1997). Tinnitus may also result from changes to nerves and blood vessels in and around your ear(s). In some cases there may be a problem with part of the ear or even the nerve that connects your ear to your brain.

How many people get tinnitus in the UK?

It is difficult to know how many people have or ever will get tinnitus, or even how many who do get it find it annoying because of the lack of awareness and understanding among health care professionals, public and employers. Some research suggests that about 6% to 12% of adults get persistent tinnitus at some time during their life (Aazh et al., 2007). Tinnitus affects one in 10 children aged seven to 17 years old according to NICE clinical guidelines (NICE, 2008). Tinnitus was reported by 14% of participants living in Manchester city centre while attending an audiology clinic (Dawes et al 2003), while a study survey in the US reported tinnitus affecting 12% of children (Coles et al., 2003).

How many people find tinnitus affects their quality of life?

It is difficult to tell how many people are affected by tinnitus because there has been little research into this. Tinnitus itself, particularly if it is only occasional, does not usually cause other problems and so will not be spotted unless it is specifically looked for. However, a significant number of people who get tinnitus find that it interrupts or disturbs sleep; some also find that tinnitus affects concentration at work or school (LePage et al., 1990; Eggermont & Roberts, 2004). Some people become withdrawn and depressed as a result (Hoare et al., 2007).

Is there a cure for tinnitus?

No. But the following strategies may reduce the annoyance caused by tinnitus: using sound to distract from the tinnitus – such as listening to music or radio, or using background noise from a fan or radio; relaxation exercises, stress management, counselling, acupuncture and hypnotherapy. In some cases medication can help with anxiety and sleep problems that can be associated with tinnitus. There is also a general agreement amongst audiologists that hearing aids can assist with tinnitus.

What can be done about tinnitus?

Here at Adjust Hearing, we can help you cope by providing information about the nature of tinnitus and discuss available treatments. We aim to reduce your distress and improve your quality of life. If it is causing other problems such as hearing loss or sleep disturbance you may also be referred to another clinician for management (e.g., a clinical psychologist).

We offer a wide range of services that are designed to support you with your tinnitus. These include tinnitus support groups, talking therapies and sound enrichment therapy.

Tinnitus Support Groups

Attending a tinnitus support group where people share their experiences with tinnitus and tinnitus treatments may be beneficial. Tinnitus support groups provide tinnitus sufferers with a sense of community in a judgement free environment. Since tinnitus is a chronic condition, attending a tinnitus support group can be a rewarding experience since members of the group have similar experiences and similar interests. At the very least, it can help ease feelings of isolation that many individuals living with tinnitus may feel.

Talking Therapies

Tinnitus can be viewed as “a complex phantom sound” because it has no clear physical cause, but talking therapies have been found to be very effective for tinnitus treatment and management.

Methods of talking therapy:

Cognitive behavourial therapy (CBT): talking through thoughts and feelings with a qualified talking therapist helps you change your thoughts and behaviours related to tinnitus; this approach has had positive results with sufferers.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): with this talking therapy, the patient learns to accept tinnitus by focusing on specific tasks. A qualified talking therapist will teach patients how to manage their thoughts about tinnitus; studies show that ACT treatment helps individuals learn strategies that lead to improved quality of life.

Mindfulness: is a talking therapy where sufferers are taught how their mind can be more focused by being present in the moment. The benefits of mindfulness include increased calmness, better sleep, decreased anxiety, more positivity throughout the day.

Cognitive behavioural therapy combined with mindfulness: talking therapies have been found to be especially helpful for treating stress, anxiety and depression in patients with tinnitus.

The main talking therapies have been shown to help individuals deal with their tinnitus symptoms. This can be done through altering thoughts and behaviour. In this way, talking therapies are a good option for dealing with the psychological distress that is often associated with tinnitus. However talking therapies do not lessen or mask the sound itself, instead they allow people to cope better which makes their quality of life better overall.

Sound Enrichment Therapy

In sound enrichment therapy, individuals use sound machines that have been specifically programmed to emit low level sounds in order to mask the noise heard with tinnitus. This sound machine works by emitting sound similar to nature or relaxing sounds on a low level sound. Therefore, the sound that is difficult to ignore with tinnitus would be harder to detect by the individual because of this sound masking.  Sound enrichment therapy has been shown to provide relief from psychiatric symptoms associated with tinnitus.

It is important to note that sound enrichment therapy does not treat or cure tinnitus for an individual, but it can help improve their quality of life and decrease stress levels.

Want to learn more?

There are many ways you could deal with your tinnitus symptoms including hearing aids, or relaxation techniques like meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However, tinnitus isn’t typically dealt with in a single way, therefore obtaining an expert medical evaluation is always advisable. If you’re struggling with tinnitus don’t suffer alone; book in today! We’ll be happy to help you find relief from this distressing condition.