This week is Tinnitus Awareness Week. Did you know that according to Better Hearing Australia, 15-20% of Australians – that’s somewhere between four and five million people – are currently experiencing symptoms of tinnitus?
What’s more, according to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), up to two thirds of us will experience tinnitus at some point in their lives. So what is this condition that affects so many people — and what can tinnitus sufferers do about it? We cover the basics here.
1. What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the medical term for the sensation of hearing sound in your ears when no external sound is present. In most cases, tinnitus is a subjective sound, meaning only the person who has it can hear it. Typically, sufferers describe the sound as “ringing in ears,” though others describe it as hissing, buzzing, whistling, roaring and even chirping.
Just as the sound may be different for each person, the effects of tinnitus are different for every individual, too. For some, it is sporadic and “not that bad.” For others, tinnitus never stops and can make daily life awful.
But one thing everyone with tinnitus has in common is a desire for relief. For most, this desire is so great they will try anything to make their tinnitus less annoying, including resorting to acupuncture, eardrops, herbal remedies, hypnosis and more.
2. What causes tinnitus?
Scientists and health experts have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of tinnitus. But several sources are known to trigger or worsen ringing in the ears, including:
Loud noises and hearing loss — Exposure to loud noises can destroy the non-regenerative cilia (tiny hairs) in the cochlea, causing permanent tinnitus and/or hearing loss. Noise-induced tinnitus is often the result of exposure to loud environmental noises, such as working in a factory setting, with or around heavy machinery, or even a single event like a gunshot or loud concert.
Aging — Natural aging, too, gradually destroys the cilia, and is a leading cause of hearing loss. Tinnitus is a common symptom of age-related hearing loss.
Ototoxic medications – Some prescription medications such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, diuretics and others can be ototoxic, meaning they are harmful to the inner ear as well as the nerve fibres connecting the cochlea to the brain.
Hearing conditions – Conditions such as Meniere’s disease are known to cause tinnitus.
Health conditions – Tinnitus has been associated with a number of health conditions, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Thyroid problems
- Fibromyalgia and chronic pain
- Head or neck trauma
- Jaw misalignment
- Auditory, vestibular or facial nerve tumours
- Stress and fatigue
3. Is there a cure for tinnitus?
Currently, there is no known cure for tinnitus. However, according to the RACGP, there are a few established therapies and tinnitus treatment options. Because there is no cure, the RACGP notes, “those with subjective, bothersome chronic tinnitus require tinnitus-specific therapies”.
Hearing aids are one tinnitus treatment option the RACGP lists, with hearing professionals reporting that 60% of their tinnitus patients experience relief when wearing them.
Sound therapy is another treatment option listed by the RACGP, which notes that “when external sound is provided to the auditory centre, the patient focuses on this sound and, therefore, has a reduced perception of tinnitus and a sense of relief”.
Sound therapy — and hearing aids — work by masking the tinnitus sound and reducing the perception and intensity of any ‘ringing in the ears’. This helps take your mind off of your tinnitus, which helps lower its burden.
4. What should you do if you or someone you know has tinnitus?
Since the exact cause of tinnitus is not known, the RACGP recommends you visit your GP and follow the visit up with a formal audiology assessment. This evaluation helps them determine if tinnitus is present and what may be causing it. Specialized tests are performed to evaluate the auditory system. Some of these tests measure the specific features of the tinnitus itself, and could include:
- Evoked response audiometry
- Tinnitus pitch matchs
- Tinnitus loudness match
5. How can you get tinnitus relief?
While there is no cure for tinnitus, Starkey’s hearing aids with our proprietary Multiflex Tinnitus Technology have been clinically proven to provide relief for ringing in the ears.
Multiflex Tinnitus Technology enhances the masking capabilities of our hearing aids even more by creating a customizable and comforting sound stimulus that you and your hearing professional can fine-tune. This sound stimulus soothes the unique, irritating sounds you hear — so you can get your mind off your tinnitus and get your life back.
Another useful aid for tinnitus relief is Starkey’s Relax, an app for your smartphone that includes 12 different relief sounds designed to decrease the loudness or prominence of tinnitus and provide personalised relief. Relax can be used with or without your Starkey hearing aid. You can get the app here for iPhone or Android.
Sources:Current Trends in the Treatment and Management of Tinnitus, Better Hearing Australia, June 2018
A review of tinnitus, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, April 2018