Tinnitus is a common condition. Around a third of the population will experience it during their lifetime. 10% of people live with the condition daily, while in 1% the symptoms are so severe their quality of life is reduced. People who have hearing or ear problems are more likely to get tinnitus and it can affect anyone of any age. But is there a cure?
What is Tinnitus?
The term tinnitus means you hear a sound when there is no external noise and the symptoms can vary between sufferers. For example, the noise you hear could be described as whooshing, buzzing, humming but most commonly it is described as ringing. The noise may be continuous, or it may come and go. It may also sound like it’s in one ear or both, it may sound like it’s in the middle of your head or you may find it difficult to pinpoint exactly where it is.
Types of Tinnitus
There are 4 different types of tinnitus. They are:
Subjective tinnitus is the most common type. The symptoms can only be heard by the individual who has the condition. The usual cause for this type of tinnitus is being exposed to a loud noise. For this reason it is possible to last up to 12 months, In severe cases the tinnitus may become permanent.
Neurological tinnitus is usually caused by another health condition such as Meniere’s Disease. Diseases like this normally affect the auditory function of the brain, hence the onset of tinnitus.
Somatic tinnitus is related to our sensory system.
Objective tinnitus is rare and is caused by involuntary muscle contractions. If the cause is treated, then the tinnitus usually disappears so it is the only one which can have a permanent fix. With objective tinnitus, other people can also hear the tinnitus noise.
These are the 4 main types of tinnitus, however, there are some subtypes, too.
Musical tinnitus is more common in older people. It can sound like a familiar tune or piece of music and usually occurs in people who have lost their hearing and have had tinnitus for a long time. Musical tinnitus may also be called musical hallucinations or auditory imagery.
Pulsatile tinnitus is associated with the beating of the heart. In other words, it sounds like your heart beating in your ear. Pulsatile tinnitus usually occurs when there is a change in blood flow to the blood vessels near the ear.
The experience of tinnitus between suffers can differ. In most cases, tinnitus doesn’t have any effect on a person’s day to day life. Yet, some people can find the noise a little annoying and others can find it a real burden. The way you deal with tinnitus can vary, too. In some, a simple head shake can make the noise disappear.
What Are the Causes?
Doctors are uncertain about the exact cause of tinnitus. Despite not knowing what the cause is, they are clear that it is not a disease or an illness. Instead, a likely contributing factor is a mental or physical change. An obvious reason for tinnitus to start is being exposed to a loud noise or damage to your hearing system. For example, if you go to a very loud music concert or work with loud power tools.
Our ability to hear is reliant on a good relationship between our ears and brain. Sound travels through our ear and hearing nerves transport the sound signals to the brain. The brain is responsible for processing the sound we hear. The ears send a lot of information to the brain and it filters out the bits we don’t need like background noise.
Changes can cause alterations to the amount of information being sent to the brain. To try to correct these changes, the brain attempts to get more information from our ears. The extra information the brain receives can result in the sound we call tinnitus. Therefore, tinnitus is not really a sound at all, instead it is extra brain activity.
All sorts of things can cause tinnitus. Sometimes, it is possible to hear noises when you have a cold or an ear infection while blockages of wax can also cause tinnitus. Other potential causes of tinnitus include:
- Neck muscle strains
- Cardiovascular disease
- Benign tumours
- Injury to the ears or head
- Emotional stress
Tinnitus is rarely a sign of a serious medical condition. Periods of stress can be a risk factor for developing tinnitus. For example, some people have experienced tinnitus during times of great stress in their lives maybe from work or emotional stress linked to their home life.
What Treatments Are Available?
The big question everyone wants to know is there a cure? And to put it simply, no there is no cure available yet. However, with a growing number of people reporting that they have tinnitus, research is increasing too. Fortunately, there are several treatment methods available for the condition. With technology evolving, researchers may one day find a cure.
Treatment for tinnitus can be split into 3 types: psychological, sound therapy or alternative.
Psychological treatment includes cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and tinnitus counselling. Cognitive behavioural therapy combines many approaches. For tinnitus, CBT aims to reduce the behaviour and reactions to tinnitus rather than quieting the sound down.
Behavioural therapies aim to change negative thoughts you may associate with your tinnitus into positive thoughts. Tinnitus can affect your ability to carry out normal daily activities. A lot of the time the negativity linked with the condition can have a profound effect. So, CBT encourages you to talk about how you feel and the emotions you have about your tinnitus. The idea is that eventually you will feel more confident and be able to deal with the problems tinnitus cause in a more positive way.
A meditation technique which is often used for pain relief but has recently been used for tinnitus is mindfulness. It is based on the idea that as human beings we tend to resist sensations we find unpleasant such as pain or tinnitus. Mindfulness encourages you to allow and acknowledge tinnitus to change our awareness to include more sensations. Eventually, these sensations will become less central to our lives. When mindfulness is used effectively then you can create a space away from the tinnitus where you can decide how to respond to it.
Tinnitus counselling helps you to deal with the information, management and treatment of the condition. There are several components to tinnitus counselling, including:
- Hearing advice and mechanisms of tinnitus awareness
- Relaxation advice
- Sound therapy
- Advice on sleep hygiene and bedside masking devices
Counselling for tinnitus is both safe and effective. Just like the other psychological approaches, counselling aims to calm your emotional responses to your tinnitus. It also gives you a better knowledge of your tinnitus and the mechanisms causing it. By having a greater understanding, you may find your anxiety and stress levels are reduced.
Counselling may also have an effect on your concentration and as a result help you to control the noise. The overall aim of counselling is to improve your quality of life.
Sound therapy or enrichment is a distraction technique developed for the treatment of tinnitus. Tinnitus cannot be cured. Instead, sound therapy distracts your attention away from the phantom noise and onto something else.
The use of sound therapy has been around for over 100 years. In the early 1900s, a physician named Spaulding, matched the sound of his patients tinnitus using a piano. Once the match had been found, he played the frequency until the patient was no longer able to hear it.
In 1993, the theory of habituation of the auditory system was proposed by Jastreboff and McKinney. They used low level sounds to manage tinnitus. Today this theory is still used in the management of the condition. Sound therapy is usually used in combination with other types of treatment and management strategies. For example, it works well if you have a good knowledge about tinnitus and can think more positively about it.
For most people, their tinnitus is more noticeable when they are in quieter surroundings. This is why tinnitus can disrupt sleep as the noise may be more prominent at night when trying to rest. Therefore, the use of sound enrichment – the use of sound to reduce your awareness of tinnitus – can be beneficial.
There are various types of sound therapy available. With the recent advances in technology, new forms and ideas are entering the market. Some examples, include:
- Music from CD’s, mp3 downloads or the radio
- Smartphone apps
- Sound generators
- Wearable sound generator
- Hearing aids
Less traditional methods for treating tinnitus are becoming popular. One example is the use of acupuncture. Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine. During treatment, very fine needles are inserted into certain points of the body through the skin. You may have heard acupuncture being used for conditions which cause pain and many people find that it is a successful technique.
The only problem is there is little scientific data available to back up the success of acupuncture for the treatment of tinnitus. Results also depend on the individual too. What works for one person may not necessarily work for you.
Although it uses needles, acupuncture is in fact painless. Rather than treating the noise you hear, Chinese medicine focuses on the root cause. According to Chinese medicine there are energy pathways running through our body. If these pathways become blocked or imbalanced then this can cause illness or pain. There are 2 types of tinnitus according to Chinese medicine; excess or deficiency. Excess is related to the inflammation of the gallbladder and he liver and is made worse by periods of anxiety or stress. Whereas, the deficiency type is linked with kidney or liver deficiency.
Are There Any Home Remedies or Therapies?
As well as the more traditional forms of treatment, some also favours home remedies. Often, they may be taken alongside other treatment options. The home remedies usually take the form of supplements which are available from most health food shops and some supermarkets.
5 supplements which are used to treat tinnitus are:
- Ginkgo Biloba
- Vitamin B12
- Coenzyme Q10
Ginkgo Biloba is the best herbal remedy available for the treatment of tinnitus. It comes from the leaf of the maidenhair tree and has been used in Chinese medicine for hundreds of years. Ginkgo Biloba has a key role in improving our blood circulation. This is important in the treatment of tinnitus because the better blood flows to the ear, the more oxygen and nutrients it will receive to function properly. As well as treating tinnitus caused by circulatory problems, it may also help if an ear infection causes it. Ginkgo has both antibacterial and antifungal properties. So, it can help to treat the underlying cause of tinnitus.
There are also remedies which you can make to try to reduce the noise. These include:
Exercise and hobbies
o Achieves greater levels of well-being, self-esteem and confidence
o Exercise can provide a distraction from tinnitus
o Hobbies include colouring, yoga, sports activities, knitting etc
o Listening to soothing music can help to calm you down
o Can provide a distraction from tinnitus
Apple cider vinegar
o Has antibacterial and antifungal properties
o Can fight underlying infections
Having a good understanding about tinnitus can be helpful in the treatment process. It can provide you with vital information and may help you to identify a potential cause. The cause may be something simple like being exposed to loud music. In this case the tinnitus may resolve itself in a short period of time. Knowledge can also help you to find an appropriate treatment method which suits you and your lifestyle.
Although, tinnitus can be a bothersome condition it is important to remember it’s not an illness or a symptom. So, once you establish a way to distract yourself from the noise or find a remedy which quietens it down, it can become manageable.