Understanding the Facts about Tinnitus
Whether you experience the phenomenon that many describe as a sensation of ringing in the ears, continuously, at fairly frequent intervals, or it is something that has only happened to you on one or two occasions, it may be in your interest to learn some of the more significant facts about tinnitus. Firstly, it is not an illness, but a symptom, although, in rare cases, it may be the result of some underlying pathology. While, in the vast majority of cases the sounds are purely subjective and completely inaudible to an examining physician, it is the less common, objective variant, in which sounds can be overheard by others, that is sometimes associated with a more serious problem.
Incidentally, the sounds experienced by those with subjective symptoms are certainly not limited to ringing. In practice, over 40% of patients report that they hear more than one type of sound. Reported sounds include buzzing, high-pitched whistling, drilling, low-pitched humming, and booming, to name just a few.
Tinnitus sufferers can draw some comfort from the statistical facts relating to this phenomenon. They are not alone. These phantom sounds are experienced, to some degree, by between 10% and 15% of the world’s population, and the figures increase to around 20% for those aged between 55 and 65. Overall, around one out of every ten adults is affected.
While the precise mechanism that may be responsible for generating the phantom sounds still remains largely a matter of conjecture, the fact that there is a link between tinnitus and hearing loss is undeniable. Given that around 80% of those affected by this phenomenon also show varying degrees of auditory impairment, it is likely that both are the result of damage affecting the sensorineural function of the specialised hair cells located in the inner ear.
Despite uncertainty regarding the origin of these subjective sounds, most of the possible causes are well known. One that most people will have experienced and, in most cases, survived with no more than temporary symptoms, is exposure to loud noise which, if sufficiently prolonged, can lead to noise-induced hearing loss.
In practice, one of the more consistent facts about tinnitus remains that the factors which cause it are often also responsible for auditory impairment. The common causes include ear infections, excessive wax build-up, and the side effects of certain medications. When medication is withdrawn or the other conditions treated, hearing is restored and the irritating sounds disappear. Untreated infections, when allowed to become chronic, otosclerosis, responsible for progressive deafness in young adults, and Ménière’s disease, a rare inner ear disorder that affects balance, are all known to be responsible for persistent and irreversible subjective sounds.
For those who are not yet affected by tinnitus, a couple of facts regarding its prevention may be in order. While there is no way to guard against the possibility of Ménière’s disease or otosclerosis, the potential effects of earwax, infections, and loud noise are preventable with some simple precautions. Simple hygiene measure like keeping earplugs clean and wearing them when swimming can help prevent infections, but when they do occur, seeking prompt treatment is essential. Most importantly, avoid any prolonged exposure to loud noise or, if you can’t, be sure to wear some form of approved hearing protection.
Undoubtedly, chief among the facts that the average tinnitus sufferer may be reluctant to hear, is that, to date, researchers have not managed to find a cure. Instead, the focus of the various treatments that are available at present is on how to help patients manage their symptoms, rather than on the means to eliminate them.
Without going into too much detail, the current options may be divided into various therapies designed to improve the patient’s ability to cope more effectively with his or her phantom noises, and technology aimed at masking them to the point where they become less intrusive. The best results are frequently seen in those subjects who combine a course of counselling, which might include cognitive behavioural therapy, with one or more forms of sound-enrichment technology.
Phonak, a world leader in the field of assisted hearing believes that flexibility is key to the effective treatment of tinnitus and, in fact, has backed this belief with a selection of products to cater for the individual needs of those with and without significant hearing loss.