Most people who become aware of their tinnitus consult their doctor if it is troubling them. If a simple cause (such as hardened earwax) can be ruled out, the doctor usually refers the person onwards to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist. MRI scans or other procedures may be carried out to ensure that there is no serious underlying illness, but in most cases, no discernible cause for the tinnitus can be found. Occasionally, tinnitus is associated with Ménière’s Disease, a disorder of the middle ear, for which medication can be helpful. Surgical intervention to treat tinnitus is rare. As a result, ENT specialists tend to have little or no ongoing role in managing tinnitus.
However, audiologists and hearing therapists, who may be of assistance in relation to hearing difficulties, can also help in tinnitus management. If a person is very distressed and anxious about their tinnitus, a doctor may prescribe mild sedatives or sleeping medication. This sometimes also results in a lessening of the severity of the tinnitus noise.
The person with troublesome tinnitus needs reassurance and encouragement in the early stages, as well as information to aid understanding. Knowing that others experience the same symptoms and have reached a stage where they are no longer affecting day-to-day life, can be reassuring. Psychological support may be necessary, and counselling helps many at this acute stage. An audiologist may recommend a hearing aid which, while improving hearing, may subdue the tinnitus noise at the same time. Other forms of ‘noise generators’ which help to soften the tinnitus are also available.
How do people manage their tinnitus?
Over time, people learn that some things aggravate their tinnitus while other things help to soothe it. In a recent study, people with tinnitus said the following helped them:
- Keeping busy – at work, at hobbies or socially
- Actively ignoring the noise by turning attention to something else
- Avoiding silence, by having sound enrichment (e.g. a radio or music, or recordings of nature’s sounds playing in the home)
- Avoiding loud sounds and noisy places
- Keeping contact with people
- Telling someone about the noise (but not boring them with it!)
- Getting sufficient rest
- Taking reasonable exercise
- Where possible, avoiding stress, hurry and hassle, and getting worked up about things
Some people find things in their diet that affect the tinnitus. Alcohol helps some people but makes the tinnitus worse for others. Even changes in the weather may affect the noise. Each person learns their own tinnitus pattern and makes adjustments to cope with this. Tinnitus support associations can provide advice on matters such as sleep problems, and the use of complementary therapies. However, you must consult your doctor for advice on medication.
How can someone “get used to” tinnitus?
When you are in the early stages of distressing tinnitus, the fear and anxiety accompanying the tinnitus serve to increase attention to it, making it seem louder, and creating a ‘vicious circle’. You may be unable to take your attention from it, or fear it indicates some serious illness, or that it will go on forever. However, when tinnitus begins to be understood, and you realise that it will not harm you, the fear begins to lessen and the noise begins to gradually diminish. Gaining even a little control over the noise leads to greater confidence and hope.
Reducing the attention you pay to tinnitus is a natural process but it takes some time and you must be patient. Getting used to something is called ‘habituation’ – it happens with tinnitus when it is no longer seen as a threat. Habituation results in less attention being paid to the noise; anxiety and fear decrease, and gradually the noise is found to diminish. It can be speeded up with good help and support, but usually takes some months at least. In the early stages, it is difficult for people to believe that they will one day reach the point where they will hardly notice the noise, and yet that should be the aim for everyone.
It is also true that some people experience a relapse in their tinnitus. After a long time, maybe even years, during which the noise had been hardly noticeable, the noise becomes louder and more troubling than before. Sometimes, this happens at a time of stress or illness or anxiety for the person, but often there is no obvious reason. When this happens, it is important to return to the basic advice about managing the noises.
It is generally the case that the tinnitus noise soon returns to the manageable level it was at before. However, it is also wise to talk to your doctor if you continue to be worried about the renewed noise, or if it continues to be severe.
If you have tinnitus, the outlook is positive. A cure is some time away, but you can help yourself through help from others.
Where can I get further information?
If you have been medically checked out for your tinnitus, and want further information and support, contact your local tinnitus support service (details below), or the Irish Tinnitus Association (ITA). When you join the ITA – it costs €20 per year – you will receive regular newsletters and information on tinnitus events in Ireland and abroad.