Tinnitus is the condition in which people experience sounds in their ears or head which do not have an external cause. The noises may be heard as ringing, whistling, roaring, rumbling, clicking or other variations. They are sensed as very loud by some people, and may be unpleasant. One or both ears can be affected. Hearing may be affected as well, but not always. The noise may be temporary, and sometimes disappears, or may come and go, or it can be permanent.
What causes it?
Tinnitus is generally considered to be a symptom of a disorder of the mechanisms of the middle or inner ear. It can result from a number of events and conditions. Exposure to loud noise is a common one – this may be work-related, and show up after many years, or can occur in a single moment, such as after a gunshot discharge. Head injury is another possible cause. Tinnitus associated with ageing is common. In some people, tinnitus develops after a ‘flu or cold, an ear infection, or after or during a period of severe stress. Other causes include head or ear surgery, or certain drugs. The onset may be sudden or gradual. Sometimes the cause is a simple one of hardened earwax and its removal may remove the tinnitus. Temporary tinnitus following a night at a loud party or club is common, but prolonged exposure to very loud noise or music can result in hearing damage, including permanent tinnitus.
Who gets it?
The majority of people will experience tinnitus at some time, but most will not be unduly troubled by it. About 10% of people report persistent tinnitus, and maybe 1 in 10 of these is significantly troubled by the noises. People of any age can be affected, even children, but tinnitus is most common among older people. Some degree of hearing loss is common among those with tinnitus. Men and women seem to be equally affected.
How does it affect people?
Even though only a small minority of people experience severe tinnitus, the condition still has a serious impact on the quality of life of many. Tinnitus is not a psychological illness, but it can cause psychological distress. Little understanding by others of a condition that is not visible can increase a person’s isolation. Coping with the noises can be debilitating, leading to anxiety and depression, loss of interest in work, leisure activities, and relationships. Sleep may be disturbed, and concentration affected. If there is also a hearing impairment, additional stresses may occur. The early stages of the condition can be especially distressing, when many find it difficult to ignore the noises, and the person affected will require help and support at this time. However, the fact is that with time, the great majority of people do learn to live with tinnitus, and have a good quality of life in spite of it.
Is there a cure for tinnitus?
The answer is: “not yet”. No surgical procedure will cure tinnitus for everyone; neither has the ‘wonder drug’ been found that could stop the noises without serious side-effects. However, international research is ongoing, with the more optimistic suggesting a possible cure emerging within 5 to 7 years. In the absence of a ‘cure’, treatments and therapies aim at management of tinnitus. People need to be told that tinnitus can be managed to the extent that it no longer has a serious affect on everyday life. For many people, their awareness of the noises can be reduced to the point where they are no longer troubled by them.
Does it ever go away?
Medical professionals and others often tell people that “nothing can be done” for their tinnitus, that it will “never go away”, and they must “learn to live with it”. Such advice adds to the burden the person already bears. More constructive advice would tell people that while the tinnitus is unlikely to go away (it does in fact disappear for some people), it becomes easier to live with in time; and that in fact quite a lot can be done to help.