Tinnitus is a common condition that refers to a range of sounds or 'head noises' such as ringing, hissing, buzzing or clicking. There is no cure for tinnitus, but with appropriate support the condition can be successfully managed so that it has little or no impact on a person's life. Tinnitus is usually caused by a fault or dysfunction in the hearing system and is not a disease in itself.
What Causes Tinnitus?
Almost everything that can go wrong with our ears can produce tinnitus. Perhaps as simple as wax against the eardrum, or as serious as a tumour on the hearing nerve. Otosclerosis (fixation of the tiny stirrup bone in the middle ear) can produce tinnitus and so can Meniere's disease. A major cause of tinnitus is exposure to excessive noise for example chain saws, machinery, rock concerts.
Among the most common are exposure to excessively loud noise extreme stress or trauma, age related hearing loss, some prescription and non-prescription drugs. Reducing or eliminating and alcohol may help as they can temporarily worsen tinnitus for some people.
How Tinnitus Affects People
People with tinnitus may display the following behaviour in the early stages. This may include frequent mood swings, depression, anxiety attacks, tension, irritability, frustration, poor concentration, sleep problems extreme distress, especially in the early stages, is common. However, the tinnitus does not cause these problems directly. It is the emotional response of the suffer that causes the problems. Modifying emotional responses often eliminates the majority of these problems.
Is Tinnitus Understood?
Worldwide research continues but the actual mechanisms, or processes of tinnitus are not yet fully understood. We do know that tinnitus is real, not imagined, and that it is a symptom of a malfunction, usually somewhere in the hearing system (includes ear and brain). The inner ear, or cochlear, is involved for many people.
Mechanisms of Tinnitus
When the brain first hears tinnitus it attempts to classify the sound from its stored data of sounds with which it is familiar. When no 'match' can be made from previous experience, the brain focuses on the sound to such an extent that the sound is effectively magnified and the brain gives it a level of importance it does not deserve.
This happens in the same way as when you are alone in your house at night and you hear the sound of a blind knocking against a window sill, or the floor boards expanding or contracting. Your senses go into a state of high alert, and the sounds are given unnecessary significance. This is because the limbic system within the brain is interpreting the sounds as signals of possible danger.
In the same way, whenever you are aware of your tinnitus, your brain automatically interprets the sounds as a sign that something is terribly wrong, or as a danger signal. If this continues, your mind becomes obsessed with the sound, continually focusing on it and thus maintaining your body and mind in a state of high alert.
If this fearful pattern of thought is left unchecked, the negative response to the sound is reinforced. This 'programming' of the brain must be corrected so that you learn to manage your tinnitus rather than letting it manage you.
How Common is Tinnitus ?
Tinnitus is a symptom of a malfunction of the auditory system where by the sufferer hears sounds in the ears and head which are not associated with any external source. Approximately 17-20% of the Australian population suffer from tinnitus to varying degrees and approximately 50 million Americans have tinnitus in some form.
Countries with self-help groups include USA, UK, Germany, Canada, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Severe tinnitus is recognised as a very major affliction, but most people have tinnitus to a milder degree. Given time, commitment and up-to-date professional help, tinnitus can reduce for many people.
Many people are told that there is nothing that can be done or you will have to learn to live with it. This is totally wrong. Although there is no cure, people with tinnitus can learn techniques to successfully manage their tinnitus to the point where the tinnitus is no longer a problem for them, and they can continue to lead full and productive lives.