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What is Tinnitus ?

Tinnitus is very common. About one in ten adults experience tinnitus. It is not a disease or illness. It is a symptom generated by the hearing system in your brain.

Tinnitus is the term for the sensation of hearing a sound in the absence of any external sound. Symptoms of tinnitus are you may hear different types of sound, for example, ringing, whooshing or humming or buzzing in the ear. These can be continuous or they can come and go. The tinnitus might seem like it’s in one ear or both, in the middle of the head or even be difficult to pinpoint. Some people may think the noise is coming from outside and hunt for it until they discover it’s actually inside them!

Occasionally people have tinnitus that has a musical quality and can seem like a familiar tune or song. This generally occurs in older people who have a hearing loss and a strong musical interest. This type of tinnitus is known as musical tinnitus or musical hallucination.

What Causes Tinnitus?

The causes of tinnitus are still not fully known. Here we list some issues that we do know that it can be linked with.

When we hear, sound travels into the ear and then the hearing nerves take the signals to the brain. The brain is then responsible for putting it all together and making sense of the sound. Because the ears don’t know what’s important and what’s not, they send a lot of information to the brain. This is too much information for us to process, so the brain filters out a lot of unnecessary ‘activity’ and background sound, such as clocks ticking or traffic noise.

If there is a change in the system, for example, a hearing loss or ear infection, the amount of information being sent to the brain changes. The brain then responds to this change in levels by trying to get more information from the ear, and the extra information you may get is the sound we call tinnitus. The tinnitus is therefore actually brain activity and not the ear itself! It is generally accepted that it isn’t only a change in the ear that can result in tinnitus, but it could be due to a change in our stress levels, for example, with tinnitus being noticed after periods of significant stress, a change in life circumstances or general wellbeing.

Fortunately, tinnitus is rarely an indication of a serious disorder and a doctor will be able to check this for you.

Hearing Loss

People often lose some of their hearing as they get older due to “wear and tear” in the inner ear. Tinnitus could be your brain’s attempt to fill in the gaps of the sounds you can no longer here. Tinnitus can also be more noticeable, as it is no longer masked by other environmental sounds.

Stress & Anxiety

Tinnitus can be more noticeable if you are anxious or stressed.

Exposure to loud noise

Tinnitus can be more noticeable if you are anxious or stressed.

Ear Infections

Ear infections, colds, and the flu can cause muffled hearing and tinnitus. The tinnitus will normally be temporary, but it is important to see your doctor who can treat any infection.

Head and neck injury

Be sure to consult your doctor if you have tinnitus following a head or neck injury.

Medications

Tinnitus is a potential side effect of some medications. It is a fairly common side effect, and you should not stop taking any medicine without first discussing it with your doctor.

First Steps

Although tinnitus rarely means that there is anything seriously wrong, it is wise to see your doctor if you have it. Below are some suggestions to help until you can arrange that appointment.

Information

You will probably feel better when you learn more about tinnitus by looking through the links on this site. Hopefully, learning that tinnitus is very common, not dangerous, and that you are not alone will help. 

Basic sound therapy

If the noises seem louder at quiet times, such as during the night, it may help to have some gentle background or natural sounds from a CD or sound generator. You can access free, audiologist-designed sounds here.

Relaxation

Stress and anxiety can make your tinnitus seem louder. Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, or yoga can help you reduce the loudness of your tinnitus, and lessen its impact on you.

Next steps

In addition to the self-help techniques we have already mentioned, the following strategies can be very helpful in managing tinnitus. 

Treat any hearing loss

Tinnitus can be caused by hearing loss. Visit a hearing care professional to see if hearing aids (or a combination hearing aid/sound generator) can help you hear better and treat your tinnitus.

Sleep management

Some people notice their tinnitus more when they are tired. Being well rested can help ease physical and emotional stress, which may lessen the perceived loudness of tinnitus. 

Sound Enrichment Therapy

Listening to radios, apps, desktop devices, and/or wearable sound generators can help reduce the loudness of tinnitus, provide distractions, and encourage habituation.