The majority of us have experienced tinnitus in our lives and not even realised it. That persistent and annoying ringing, hissing, roaring, or whistling sound that lingers in your ears for hours or even days after you’ve been to a music concert, or spent too long listening to loud music on your iPod, tinnitus is a physical and very real – not imagined – condition of the auditory system.
While for most of us the experience is only temporary and will go away given time (and a bit of quiet!), for some people, the ringing noise is constant and interferes with their ability to concentrate, fall asleep, or hear actual sound.
Tinnitus can be extremely debilitating, affecting a person’s ability to work or cope with normal life activities.
Approximately 17-30 per cent of Australian’s suffer from some degree of tinnitus, varying from mild to severe. Tinnitus can be caused by several factors including age-related hearing loss, exposure to loud noise, or earwax blockage. It’s not a disease, but rather a symptom of a malfunction somewhere in the hearing system (including both the ear and brain), and is often associated with a hearing loss.
While the actual cause or causes of tinnitus are not yet fully understood, we do know that it can be extremely debilitating, affecting a person’s ability to work or cope with normal life activities. It’s not usually the presence of the tinnitus that is the issue, but rather how sufferers think and feel about their tinnitus, often associating it with feelings of fear and anxiety leading to stress, frustration, and depression.
You can’t completely cure tinnitus, however you can reach a point where it doesn’t unduly affect your quality of life. This is known as habituation (becoming used to it). Adapting to having tinnitus is like moving from the country to the city. At first, you notice the traffic noises, but after 12 months you’re no longer aware of them. Similarly, the more attention you pay to your tinnitus, the harder it is to become used to it, and if you continue to see tinnitus as threatening, you will continue to feel anxious and stressed.
Try to accept tinnitus as part of your life, stop worrying excessively about it, keep busy with enjoyable and stimulating activities, and find relaxation and stress management strategies that work for you, for example sports, hobbies, yoga, t’ai chi, reflexology or massage.
Some other tips that may help you manage tinnitus include:
- Finding out everything you can about it. This will reassure you that it’s not something life threatening and that you’re not imagining things.
- Having your hearing checked. There may be a treatable medical cause for your specific case of tinnitus. And if there is evidence of hearing loss, get some kind of amplification such as a hearing aid.
- Limiting your exposure to loud noises and wearing something to protect your hearing from damage if you are going to be around loud music or machinery.
- Relieving the stress of tinnitus by trying to stay calm and relaxed. The relaxation response reduces the alertness state of the brain and, as the hearing system relaxes along with the rest of the body, tinnitus usually becomes less stressful.
- Keeping physically and mentally active. Take up exercise (walking is very beneficial), hobbies or interests.
- Avoiding complete quiet by finding the best ways to mask your tinnitus. Keeping your ears busy by surrounding yourself with some low-level background noise (such as playing the radio softly or listening to relaxation music) can help your brain focus on those sounds rather than the ringing of the tinnitus.
- Investigating ways to help you sleep better. Tinnitus often affects people when they try to sleep, so implementing sleep strategies may help you relax and drift off.
You can also help to make tinnitus less distressing if you avoid talking about it persistently with family and friends, constantly monitoring the level of your tinnitus, feeling guilty about not coping, becoming angry or upset about the fact that you have tinnitus, or working through an endless range of cures. Focus on management rather than living in hope of a miracle cure.
Once you become habituated to your tinnitus it will no longer have negative emotional meaning. Consequently, you should notice an improvement in your sleep and ability to concentrate, and a reduction in your feelings of depression and anxiety. You will more than likely still have some days where your tinnitus is more troublesome than usual, for example, when you are over-stressed or tired, but it it will no longer rule your life.
If you suspect you suffer from tinnitus, treat it as warning signal that you might be developing a hearing loss and make an appointment to see an audiologist for a hearing test.