Life

The truth about tinnitus and how to cope with it

With millions affected by tinnitus, Liz Connor finds out more about this mysterious whistling, ringing and buzzing in the ears and the things that can help you cope

Tinnitus is a frustrating condition that produces a constant sound in one or both ears
Liz Connor

WHAT do Chris Martin, Liam Gallagher and Bono all have in common? Aside from the fact that they're three hugely successful musicians, they've also all been affected by tinnitus.

Characterised by hearing sounds in the ears or head which aren't from an external source – such as ringing and buzzing, or even roaring, whooshing and clicking sounds – tinnitus can take a number of different forms.

But the fact that others can't hear these sounds doesn't make them any less real, or bothersome, for the person experiencing them.

So what exactly is going on, and what do you need to know? "Tinnitus is a frustrating condition that produces a constant sound in one or both ears," says Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan (Healthspan.com).

"It's not a disease or illness," she adds, explaining that tinnitus is usually related to an underlying physical or psychological problem.

:: A common condition

"Tinnitus can affect anyone, and it's found in men and women equally. It may occasionally occur in children but most commonly affects those of between 40 and 70 years of age," says Brewer. While some people might experience the same sound in both ears, others may hear one type of sound in one ear and a different sound in the other.

Dr Brewer explains that it's estimated that around 10 per cent of Britain and the north's population frequently experience tinnitus, equating to around six million people. For around half, the problem is persistent and troublesome, affecting quality of life by preventing sleep, for instance.

:: A range of causes

Although the causes of tinnitus aren't always fully understood, it can be triggered by many factors, says Brewer. Exposure to loud sounds, such as loud music or machinery, is one of the most common causes of tinnitus, as it can cause permanent damage to the cells of the cochlea – so musicians and street repair workers are among those most at risk.

"Hearing loss, poor ear hygiene, mental health issues and your brain being unable to control your reaction to specific sounds can all contribute to tinnitus too," adds Brewer. "Other medical conditions and certain medications can also play a role."

According to Brewer, a build-up of wax in the ear is the most easily remedied cause. Other health issues that cause tinnitus include a viral infection of the inner ear (or 'labyrinthitis') and Meniere's disease – a condition in which fluid pressure in the inner ear increases, which can also cause severe dizziness and nausea and a sudden reduction in hearing.

Tinnitus can also be caused by taking certain medications. "Over 200 different medicines are known to damage the ears and can cause tinnitus or problems with balance," says Brewer.

"These ototoxic drugs include high-dose aspirin, quinine, certain antibiotics and some cancer treatments, such as cisplatin and carboplatin."

If you're concerned that any medications you're taking could be causing tinnitus, speak with your pharmacist and book in to see the doctor – they may be able to prescribe an alternative, or offer additional advice for managing symptoms and side-effects.

:: Help is available

While many people experience occasional bouts of tinnitus, for some people it can be an ongoing and significant problem. If this is the case, it's important to get things checked out – and there are several therapies and solutions that can help.

If a build-up of wax is ruled out, an audiology examination may be recommended – particularly if the tinnitus is only on one side, pulses in time with your heart rate, is associated with hearing loss or difficulties, or has persisted for six months or longer.

Tinnitus might be something you have to live with – but that doesn't mean the situation can't still improve. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that helps to change how you react to tinnitus, and this can be very helpful.

"It doesn't eliminate the sound but reduces any negative responses, such as feelings that tinnitus is unpredictable or that you have lost control," says Dr Brewer.

"Many studies confirm that CBT is effective in reducing annoyance, anxiety and distress by helping you become more used to the sounds you are experiencing."

The NHS says that tinnitus counselling can aid you in learning more about your tinnitus and finding strategies to cope with it. Severe cases may also be referred to tinnitus retraining therapy, which uses sound therapy to help reduce the perceived loudness of the ringing, roaring or whistling.

Brewer believes that diet can also play a role in some cases. She suggests trying a ginkgo extract, which she believes can improve blood flow to the inner ear, and possibly help tackle vertigo and tinnitus where symptoms are linked with abnormal circulation.

"An analysis of six trials carried out in 2004 found that 21.6 per cent of those taking ginkgo biloba for tinnitus experienced benefit," says Brewer.

However, only 66 patients were involved in the trial, so more research needs to be done.

As with many things, prevention is always better than cure and the general advice is to try and avoid being exposed to overly loud music and ongoing noise as much as possible.

Think twice before standing by loudspeakers at gigs or on nights out, and when you can't avoid being around loud sound, make sure you wear suitable protection for your ears.

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