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  • Hearing Loss


Tinnitus – The Common Causes, Possible Preventative Measures and Management Options

Ringing in the ears – which of us has not experienced this irritating sensation and, quite possibly, on more than one occasion? If you are among the lucky ones, then the annoying noise, along with the muffled hearing that usually goes with it, will have progressively lessened and finally disappeared without a trace over the course of a day or two. In such cases, it is a safe bet that the cause of these temporary symptoms was an unusually loud noise. Where once that noise may have resulted from a gunshot or an exploding fire cracker, one could suffer the same effect after a relatively short drive with a friend who enjoys playing his or her car stereo at full blast. While the effects of a single exposure will normally fade naturally when given sufficient time for the ears to recover, repeated and continued exposure to sounds in excess of 85 decibels carry the risk of permanent hearing loss, often accompanied by tinnitus.

Many of those plagued by these phantom noises which, incidentally, are not limited to ringing, have developed the symptom in the workplace along with varying degrees of auditory impairment. Miners and road workers are commonly required to operate drilling equipment capable of generating more than 100 decibels. People who work in close proximity to jet aircrafts or on the nation’s busy highways are also exposed to similar decibels. Noise-induced hearing loss or NIHL is among the most common sources of claims for industrial compensation today, and can be a preventable condition. All that is required is the use of effective earplugs and sufficient self-discipline on the part of employees, together with the strict monitoring by management to ensure that the earplugs are worn at all times by those exposed to the risk of NIHL.

Whistling, whining and whooshing sounds, as well as clicking, buzzing, and even the sensation of music and voices, are just some of the sensations reported by tinnitus sufferers. Far more common than one might think, some authorities suggest these phantom noises may affect as much as 15% of the population overall, but rising to between 70% and 85% among those with detectable hearing impairments. It has been established that there are more than 50 million people in the United States of America who now experience these noises permanently to varying degrees. In practice, the condition is always accompanied by some loss of auditory sensitivity, even when its effects are not evident

The condition takes two forms, and in the rarer, objective type, the sounds may actually be heard by a physician during an ear examination. In the vast majority of cases, though, these sensations are only audible to the person affected, in which case the condition is of the alternative form that physicians describe as subjective. In the latter case, although exposure to excessive noise levels remains the most common cause, it is not the only one and, while some of these may result in temporary symptoms that should normally be readily reversed with appropriate intervention, others may have more permanent consequences.

Among the other causes of temporary, subjective tinnitus, ear infections are probably the most common, especially in children, while excessive build-up of wax in the ear canal is a close second. Some medications, including certain antibiotics and pain killers may also have this effect, and alternatives may be needed to alleviate the symptoms and prevent any long-term damage. Stress has been cited as a possible cause and although this has not been conclusively confirmed, there is strong evidence that it does act to intensify any existing symptoms.

Among the causes of a permanent ringing sensation is otosclerosis, a condition in which the bones of the middle ear become stiff, thus giving rise to conductive hearing loss. To these, one can add injuries to the head and neck, and a non-cancerous tumour that develops on the cranial nerve, which is responsible for controlling balance and hearing, and known as an acoustic neuroma. When due to such injuries or tumours, more often than not, only one ear will be affected.

Although there is no cure for tinnitus, there are a number of ways in which to help patients manage their symptoms and, in cases where there is marked hearing loss, a conventional amplification aid often provides all of the relief necessary. While professional counselling plays an important role in developing coping mechanisms, effective management is best achieved through the advanced sound enrichment technology available to users of Phonak’s advanced hearing aid range.