Traditionally, people described tinnitus as a persistent ringing in the ears. However, patients can experience a range of sounds, including whirring, whooshing, buzzing, clunking and tapping. In some rarer cases, patients can hear music, singing, or other sounds from their lives.
There are two types of tinnitus that patients can experience: subjective tinnitus, and objective tinnitus.
In subjective tinnitus, the sounds patients perceive are hallucinations of the mind. Scientific acoustic measuring equipment cannot detect them, even in principle. In objective tinnitus, sounds typically come from the action of blood rushing past components in the middle and inner ear.
Is tinnitus a serious condition?
While it can be irritating, tinnitus is rarely a sign of a serious condition. Most commonly, it results from undiagnosed and untreated hearing loss.
Unfortunately, while tinnitus is unlikely to cause major medical complications, it can be extremely uncomfortable for the person experiencing it, reducing their quality of life. People with tinnitus may feel distressed by the sounds they can hear, have trouble sleeping, and develop depression.
Tinnitus usually fades over time. Either the mind gets used to it (a process called habituation) or it disappears entirely. Most episodes of tinnitus last a short period – less than two weeks – before resolving. However, anyone who experiences a significant episode should contact their audiologist for a hearing test.
In some cases, patients with chronic, persistent tinnitus may need to go for counselling. Talk therapies help to change the way you perceive the condition, making it more emotionally manageable.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus can sometimes develop for no reason at all. In fact, you may have experienced an episode of ringing in your ears at some point in your life already.
However, persistent, chronic tinnitus is usually the result of an underlying condition. In many cases, it is age-related. As tissues in the inner ear get older, they can struggle to transmit information to the brain. When this happens, it may begin to generate sounds that aren’t there.
Age is also a risk factor for changes in the structure of blood vessels around middle and inner ear tissues. These can result in persistent whooshing sounds from rushing blood.
Tinnitus may also result from an infection of the middle ear or buildup of earwax.
Finally, hearing loss is a major driver of tinnitus. People with occupational loud noise exposure (such as factory workers, aircraft baggage handlers, entertainers and DJs) are at higher risk, as are those who listen to loud music through headphones.
How many people does tinnitus affect?
According to research, tinnitus affects around six million people in the UK to some degree, which is approximately 9 percent of the population. Around 600,000 of those will go on to develop forms of tinnitus that seriously affect their quality of life.
Tinnitus mainly affects those over 65. However, the condition can occur at any time in life, including in children.
What tinnitus treatments are available?
At present, there isn’t a single tinnitus treatment that helps everyone. However, there are options available for patients who find the condition distressing.
The type of tinnitus treatment provided depends on the causes of the condition. If the problem is an infection, doctors may simply wait for it to subside. If it is earwax, they will use special removal tools to get rid of it.
If the causative factor is hearing loss, then you may benefit from wearing hearing aids. Assistive hearing devices provide the ear with stimulation that can, over time, lessen or eliminate tinnitus symptoms.
If audiologists cannot find a cause, they may recommend various talk and sound therapies. For example, they may suggest you listen to white noise to take your mind off the tinnitus sound. They might also provide counselling to help you cope with tinnitus symptoms better. You may also receive tinnitus retraining therapy which attempts to change the way your brain perceives the sound so you can tune out of it.