Tinnitus is a sensation of sound generated inside your head that usually only you can hear. Some people experience it occasionally, while for others tinnitus is with them constantly.
Tinnitus can have a major impact on people’s daily lives, including stress, anxiety, anger and sleep loss. Tinnitus has many causes and more than 80% of people with tinnitus also experience some degree of hearing loss, though many are not aware of this. For some, treating tinnitus with hearing aids can help them feel that the tinnitus is no longer as dominant and for a high percentage the tinnitus completely disappears immediately.
Tinnitus is not a condition. It is a symptom of a condition and there are many possible causes. These are usually not serious. Inside the inner ear are tiny hair cells that convert the sounds you hear into signals the brain can understand. If some of these hair cells are damaged, the brain receives fewer signals. Some research suggests that our brain tries to compensate for the missing signals by producing a new sound in their place. However, this does not explain why people with presumably normal hearing can also experience tinnitus. This fact and others indicate that the cause of tinnitus is related to brain processes, not just the hair cell damage in the hearing system.
There are many reasons why hair cells may be damaged – common causes are the natural aging process, exposure to loud sounds or sudden impact noises. However, tinnitus can also be caused by a reaction to certain medicines, neck or head injuries, or other untreated medical conditions. The cause of the tinnitus does not need to be ascertained to be able to treat it.
Some people can ignore their tinnitus most of the time. For others, however, the symptoms can become so disturbing that a proper night’s sleep is impossible. A negative cycle can begin, causing tinnitus to take centre stage in everyday life. Lack of sleep causes stress that increases the inability for the brain to ignore the tinnitus. Consult your GP or hearing professional if you are experiencing these symptoms of tinnitus.
There are many ways to take control of your tinnitus and reduce its impact on your life. Most treatments revolve around training the brain how to ignore the tinnitus. This is by far the most successful approach and involves a combination of methods. Sometimes just one method will work and others will need the full medley. Education and counselling along with sound therapy can be an effective combination. Just as no two people experience the exact same symptoms of tinnitus, treating it needs to be personalised to your own needs. Most audiologists should be qualified to apply these methods.
Sound therapy means listening to sounds, usually passively, and can be a helpful tool in managing your tinnitus. Sound cannot eliminate tinnitus but your brain can eliminate the hearing of it, just like the humming of a computer can't be heard until you tell your brain to listen to it. By masking the tinnitus with something targeted and more pleasant, the brain can learn to eliminate both sounds. By listening to different types of sound, it becomes easier to shift your attention away from the tinnitus. Your audiologist should be able to conduct a full tinnitus assessment and work out what type of sound therapy will give you the most relief.