Tinnitus - Fact File
What is tinnitus
Tinnitus is the name given to an intermittent or persistent noise which is heard by someone but which does not actually exist. The noise is usually described by the sufferer as being a 'ringing, whistling, hissing or whooshing' noise. Most people have a low level of what could be described as tinnitus, but they only notice it in completely silent conditions and it doesn't usually impinge on their consciousness.
people with true tinnitus are aware of the noise a lot of the time to an extent which interferes with their normal life. Sometimes it can be so loud to the sufferer that it can cause them to become quite depressed. Tinnitus affects up to one in ten people and can occur in children (although this is rare), those with normal hearing and people with hearing problems.
How does it occur
There are many causes of Tinnitus, but there is also a large section of people where the cause is unknown. It can occur due to the ageing of the hearing mechanism, as a result of exposure to loud noise at some time in the past or as part of a disease called Meniere's disease. Some drugs such as aspirin can sometimes cause tinnitus as can infections of the ear or other diseases of the ear such as a condition called 'otosclerosis'. Severe head injuries can sometimes cause tinnitus.
Others seem to develop tinnitus as a result of stress or anxiety and this may well reflect the fact that they are merely noticing the 'background noise' which most people have, but only notice in very quiet conditions.
What are the tests
There are no specific tests for tinnitus since it is something that only the sufferer can hear. However, sometimes the Gp will refer the individual to an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist to exclude a serious cause for the tinnitus, to reassure the person and to provide advice on treatment. These tests may include investigations of the balance organs of the ears and a CT or MRI scan of the head to rule out tumours or a stroke, either of which can very occasionally be a cause of tinnitus.
What is the treatment
Occasionally a treatable cause is found, such as wax in the ear which can be syringed out or an infection in the middle ear which is treated with antibiotics. However, most cases of tinnitus are difficult to treat and so far no drug exists which can treat the condition. Current management of tinnitus is aimed at providing some relief from the problem and reducing the stress which it causes. Some of the possible options are mentioned below:
- A 'tinnitus masker' which is a device like a hearing aid which produces a background noise. It works by giving the ear something else to listen to, thus drowning out the noise of the tinnitus
- A hearing aid can sometimes help by promoting the normal noises of life thus submerging the noise of the tinnitus
- Medication and/or counselling for depression or anxiety where appropriate can be very helpful. Relaxation therapy is also another option
- A relatively new form of therapy now exists called tinnitus retraining therapy. This involves combining low level noise (but not enough to mask the tinnitus) with relaxation exercises in order to retrain the sufferer not to focus on the noise of the Tinnitus and not to be distressed by it, in a similar way to training someone not to be frightened of spiders
Where can I obtain further information
Apart from contacting your own Gp, the following organisations may be of further help:
The British Tinnitus Association
4th Floor, White Building
Telephone: 0114 279 6600
Telephone: 0114 273 0122
Castle Cavendish Works
Telephone: 08457 090210 (10.00-15.00 Mon-Fri)
- KODAMA, A., KITAHARA, M., KOMADA, K. (1994). Tinnitus evaluation using the tinnitus grading system. Acta-Otolaryngology supplement of Stockholm. 510: pp62-6.
- VERNON, J.A., pRESS, L.S. (1994). Characteristics of tinnitus induced by head injury. Archives of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery. 120(5): pp547-51.