Tinnitus is defined as the hearing of sound in the absence of external noise. Sufferers describe it as a whooshing, humming, ringing or buzzing noise. Difficult to pinpoint, the sound may seem like it is coming from the ears or the middle of the head.
While the cause of tinnitus is narrowly understood, it is largely agreed that the condition is due to a physical or mental change that may not necessarily be related to hearing.
The condition could also be a result of inner ear damage. In usual circumstances, sounds pass through the inner ear, where the cochlea and auditory nerve is situated, which then transmits sound signals to the brain. If damage to the cochlea occurs, it stops transmitting auditory information to the brain. The brain may then seek signals from parts of the cochlea that still work. These sought-out signals overload the brain—these may result in the ‘sound’ we associate with tinnitus.
Besides damage to the cochlea, other causes of tinnitus include ear infections or earwax buildup, a perforated eardrum or otosclerosis (a disease of the bones in the middle of the ear that can cause hearing loss). In rare cases, tinnitus may be a result of diabetes, anaemia or a head injury.
Tinnitus can also be a response to high levels of stress or a change in general health and wellbeing. While the condition may come and go, it is estimated that around 10 percent of the population—that’s six million people in the UK—suffer with tinnitus on a more permanent basis.
Coping with tinnitus
While there is ongoing research for effective treatment of the condition, there is currently no cure. Sufferers may opt for these alternative methods to help reduce its effect on their everyday lives.
Counselling. A counsellor will be able to advise you about the condition and give you tips on ways to better cope with it in everyday activities.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT can help to change the way you perceive tinnitus, making it less noticeable.
Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT). TRT aims to retrain the way your brain responds to tinnitus, so that you are able to tune out the ‘ringing’ sounds more effectively.
When to see a doctor
See a doctor if you are experiencing a constant ringing or buzzing in your ears. They will examine your ears to rule out ear infections or earwax buildup before referring you to a specialist for further treatment.