What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a symptom of other damage to your hearing system.
With normal hearing, you hear real sounds — birdsong, conversation, car horns — or silence. If you live with tinnitus, the ability to hear normally is disrupted by a ringing in your ears that makes it harder to hear everyday sounds or enjoy peaceful silence.
The ringing, hissing, buzzing or humming sound comes from inside you rather than around you. You’re hearing something that no-one else can hear.
Living With The Ringing In Your Ears
People’s experience of tinnitus varies considerably. For some people, it’s a mild annoyance; for others, it’s very distressing. The noises can be constant, loud and in both ears or centrally, or they might be occasional, soft and only heard on one side. You might hear one sound or several.
Living with the ringing in your ears can be frustrating and tiring. It can also be quite isolating. If you break your leg, your loved ones pitch in to help you with daily activities; if you get the flu, they rally around with chicken soup. But tinnitus is like a hidden disability. You don’t seem any different on the outside and may find that other people struggle to understand how hard your daily life can be.
If you have symptoms of tinnitus, then get professional help. Start by seeing your Ear Health Registered Nurse or your GP who can refer you to relevant specialists. Secondly, be prepared to try a few different treatment options as it can take time to find what works for you. Thirdly — and very importantly — continue doing things you enjoy. You might need to tweak things a bit (e.g. listening to some background music while you read) but it’s important to carry on doing those things that bring you joy and refreshment.
How Many People Have Tinnitus?
You’re not alone — tinnitus is a very common problem. Most people have experienced it at some point in their lives, even if only briefly after a night at a loud concert. It’s more common in older people. Children experience the condition too but don’t seem to find it as annoying as adults do.
In New Zealand, it’s much more common among people of European descent than among Maoris or Pacific Islanders.
For 0.5% of people, or 1 in 200, tinnitus is a debilitating problem that disrupts their sleep, lowers their concentration and causes depression.
People with good hearing can get it but it’s much more common in people who have hearing loss, usually caused by ageing or exposure to loud noise.
Types of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is a complex condition that’s often unique to each individual. It is often divided into two main categories:
- Subjective tinnitus is most common and means you’re the only one who can hear the noises
- Objective tinnitus means your doctor can hear them when examining you (this is very rare).
Subjective tinnitus includes:
- Somatic tinnitus, which relates to your sensory system. Body movements like clenching your jaw, turning your eyes or applying pressure to your head and neck can change the frequency or intensity of the symptoms.
- Pulsatile tinnitus, which usually relates to blood flow and the sounds follow a rhythm that often matches your heartbeat (try feeling your pulse while listening to the sounds).
- Neurological tinnitus, which relates to an underlying neurological disorder like Meniere’s disease.
Can it Be Cured?
Not yet, but there are treatments that can help manage the symptoms and improve your quality of life. Options include hearing aids, background sounds, relaxation techniques and psychological treatments.
Supporting Someone With Tinnitus
If your partner, friend or relative has tinnitus, encourage them to get help. Seeing a GP is usually the first step. Because you can’t hear their tinnitus, it’s sometimes hard to remember that they need support. Each person’s experience is different so the best thing you can do is talk about it — ask them what you can do to help.
Some people struggle in loud, echoey environments like bowling alleys while others find their tinnitus more bothersome in quiet environments. Make plans together so that the person with the condition can suggest a place that’s likely to suit them.
You can also encourage them to attend other appointments and to persist in trying different treatments until they find something that works for them. And try to be patient on those days when they’re battling frustration, exhaustion or depression relating to tinnitus.
If you’re in a close relationship with someone who has tinnitus, ensure you have your own sources of support. It’s not easy looking after someone with a chronic condition and you’ll need to recharge your batteries from time to time. It’ll help you love them better in the long run.