Tinnitus is the term used to describe any noise that can be heard by an individual, either in one ear, both ears, or in the head, in the absence of a sound source. In other words, the sound, whilst very real to the person experiencing it, is not audible to others.
Tinnitus takes a variety of forms, including ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling and, for some, even sounding like music or singing. In another form it is called pulsatile tinnitus. Here the sound may beat in time with your heart. For many people tinnitus is little more than an annoyance, and only noticed in very quiet situations. But, for others, the tinnitus can be very intrusive and can effectively take over your life.
In the UK around 20% of the population are affected by tinnitus. Many people experience temporary tinnitus after exposure to loud noise, such as a pop concert, but this usually fades overnight. However, repeated exposure to loud sounds can cause damage to the sensitive inner ear, and this can lead to more permanent tinnitus. When a person experiences tinnitus for the first time, it can be quite frightening. Most people with tinnitus will initially visit their doctor, however because so many people are affected by Tinnitus, often the advice given by the GP may be to ‘see how it goes’ or to ‘learn to live with it.’ Unfortunately this advice is not particularly helpful to the person experiencing the problem.
Tinnitus has many possible causes. Some of the most common are:
- Hearing Loss
- Noise Exposure
- Emotional stress
- Head or Ear injuries
- Medication side effects
However because this list is not definitive many people may not have experienced any of the above but still experience tinnitus. What is known is that the perception of sound takes place in the brain and that it is possible for the brain to ‘hear’ a sound in the absence of any signal. When a person hears this ‘phantom sound’ a reaction takes place similar to the ‘fight or flight’ response experienced by our ancestors.
This reaction leads to the release of hormones into the bloodstream, which in turn increase the heart rate, tenses muscles, and prepare the body for action. This is known as the stress response, and is completely normal. As soon as the threat passes, the body returns to normal. With tinnitus however, the sound is considered the threat, and therefore the body does not recover and a chronic stress condition can occur. This is known as the vicious circle of tinnitus. The more that you think about the tinnitus, the more anxious you become, and the more anxious you become, the more intrusive the tinnitus.
The solution, for the majority of people with tinnitus is to work towards breaking this ‘vicious circle’ and significantly reducing the effect of the tinnitus. The process, known as habituation, naturally occurs in many people, but for many a structured individual plan is necessary to achieve this effect.
At Kingsbridge Hearing Care our Audiologist Stephen can assess your tinnitus and outline to your best options available. Take a look at our Tinnitus Assessment section of our website to read more information.