What Is Tinnitus?
Simply put tinnitus is a sound that you and only you can perceive or hear. There are many different types which can vary from a hiss, whistle, fog horn, music and more. Tinnitus is normally a constant noise but can also intermittent, or pulsatile. Quite often these are continuous but they can also come and go. Tinnitus can be in one ear or both. Sometimes it can feel like it’s in the middle of the head, or it can be difficult to know exactly where it’s heard. For those that are not sure what tinnitus is, they can sometimes think the noise is coming from outside and hunt for it. Eventually they will discover the noise if from them not the environment.
Occasionally people have tinnitus that is musical in nature and can seem like a familiar song or tune. 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.
Does everyone get tinnitus?
Looking at study’s about tinnitus it is unclear to how prevalent it is. The reason why, is because we have no defined way of diagnoses. Some studies will say tinnitus is very common and is reported in all age groups, even young children. While other studies will say due to not being able to clarify without reasonable doubt, we cannot diagnose them as having tinnitus. However About 30% of people we see in clinic will say they either do experience or have had it at some point in their lives. Tinnitus is more common in people who have hearing loss or other ear problems. However, it can also be found in people with normal hearing.
Tinnitus as well as hearing is different for every person. Most people who have tinnitus find that they are able to continue their normal day-to-day. However, there are a small percentage of people with tinnitus that report it as severely affecting them. This means it affects their lives considerably.
Causes of tinnitus?
Unfortunately, this is a question that is still unable to be answered. There are a lot of theories behind tinnitus and new research is starting to make an impact in the area. We do know that tinnitus is not a disease or an illness. It is generally agreed that it results from some type of change, either mental or physical. Some professionals would argue that it is not necessarily related to hearing.
If you have not looked at the how hearing works page we would suggest having a quick look now. As we know sound travels into the ear and then the hearing nerve take the signals to the brain. The brain will then put all of the information together and make sense of the sound. This is due to the ears not knowing what information is and is not important. As you can imagine our ears 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 ‘noise’ and background sound, such as traffic noise or the mummer of a lot of people talking.
When there is a change to the system, e.g. a hearing loss or a wax blockage, the information being sent to the brain becomes less. The brain will then try to gain more information form the ear. Due to these changes, this may be part the reason your brain interprets the sound we call tinnitus. This means the tinnitus is actually the function of the brain and not of the ear or cochlear. The change of hearing is not the only reason tinnitus can occur. It could be due to our stress levels changing, lack of sleep and/or substantial changes in our life and well being. If you are worried about it being an indication of something more serious you can be fairly confident this is not the case. However, if you are worried then it is always advised to seek medical advice.
Should you seek help?
If the tinnitus is becoming problematic or already is, then the answer to this is yes. You should seek help in the form of a doctor. This will be the first person to talk to. If your doctor feels it necessary they will refer you to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) consultant or an audio-vestibular physician, they will rule out any medical factors. They will often give you a hearing assessment your and hopefully give you information about what tinnitus is and how best to manage it. Some hospitals, audiologists are specially trained in tinnitus or have a hearing therapist who should be available. They are able to offer more support if needed.
Importantly you must continue doing what you enjoy. If you allow the it to rule your life it could start to make it worse. So if you enjoy reading try it with a bit of background noise. No matter what you do just make sure you do the things you enjoy!
Will it get better?
Naturally you may be concerned when you first experience tinnitus. We become aware of the changes in our hearing and will tend to monitor this. Although the concept of having to change and adapt your life around the tinnitus can be a little daunting, it is generally an easy and manageable step. A lot of people however, do find that the it does settle after a little time without any real engagement from you. This happens in the same way that if for example you lived by a busy road; you would notice it at first but after a while you would learn to ignore it. When this happens, it is a great step! this is because you can confirm there are times when the tinnitus is less noticeable. Ultimately this means you really can do what you enjoy.