Tinnitus is the perception of sound/noise without an external source.
- Objective – can be detected by an observer e.g. vascular/muscular sources. These usually cause a pulsing (with the heartbeat) or clicking type noise.
- Subjective – not audible to an observer (this is the commoner type of tinnitus). This usually causes a more sustained type sound e.g. a hiss, ringing or steam.
In many cases except for some inner ear hearing loss no clear cause for the tinnitus is evident. Some patients have had past noise damage which may have contributed to the problem. In some cases a clear cause can be identified and sometimes corrected. This includes impacted ear wax or problems with the ear drum or bones in the middle ear. In the majority of cases no serious abnormality is found. On rare occasions a more serious problems such as an acoustic neuroma (a benign swelling on the nerve to the ear) or a vascular problem maybe causing tinnitus. These are rare but benefit from being diagnosed early and in some case require treatment.
The investigations for tinnitus include a hearing test. Further investigations depend on the story, examination and hearing test results. These may include a MRI scan.
If you have tinnitus please discuss with your GP who may consider referring you to your local ENT or audiology department/specialist.
The management of the tinnitus depends on the cause (if any) and the amount of trouble it is causing. If no obvious correctable cause is found, some patient find simple re-assurance sufficient. Others will require more help to cope.
Certain general measure help. These including:
- Reducing/ giving up caffeine (tea, coffee some fizzy drinks)
- Reducing sources of stress if possible
- Making sure you get enough sleep
- Prevent excess hunger / thirst
- Many of the lifestyle advice measure for migraine treatment can also help with tinnitus. See here.
In most people with tinnitus, background noise can help reduced awareness of tinnitus. This principle can be used to help cope better with tinnitus. Simply playing the radio or TV in the background can be helpful. Certain types of noise seem better at reducing the awareness of tinnitus. These include white noise which is hissing type noise. One would assume listening to a noise which is similar to tinnitus should not help. In practice however this principle of “sound therapy” is used by some patients to successful reduce the effects of tinnitus. Devices can be purchased which generate various types of noise which experience has shown can helpful (see here). These devices can be placed near the bed to help sleep. Smart phone can also be used in conjunction with “Tinnitus” apps to generate various helpful noises. Some tinnitus app are: Tinnitus Pro, Hear&Tinnitus, Tinnitus. Some of these apps can also do more complex sound manipulation of music which they claim may help tinnitus. These noise generators can be used in conjunction with a pillow speaker (these can be purchased from Maplin or the British Tinnitus Associate shop). This can be placed underneath your pillow and provides a noise to the ear even if on a pillow. They reduce disturbance of your partner.
Audiology department can provide personal sound generators which can be worn in a similar fashion to a hearing aid.
A proportion of patient with tinnitus find everyday sounds uncomfortable or unbearable (hyperacusis). In this group sound therapy is more difficult but can still be used to help the patient to gradually habituate to noise and tinnitus.
Patient with tinnitus who have significant hearing loss generally find a hearing aid can help reduce awareness of tinnitus. Some hearing aids can also act as noise generator.
Learning to relax via relaxation techniques or meditation can help reduce the anxiety of tinnitus. There are many self help books, CD’s, DVD;s and websites for this. Smartphone app’s are another way to relax or meditate. Some app and relaxation methods use the principles of mindfulness meditation. These apps include: Buddhify2, Headspace, Breath, Tinnitus Relief by Helena etc. I do not specifically endorse one app over another.
Understanding the mechanisms of tinnitus and learning to cope with it are a key to reducing the annoyance and effect of tinnitus. Professionals can help tinnitus patient with formal tinnitus counselling. Other psychological methods include cognitive behaviour therapy and tinnitus retraining therapy.
Many patient want to know if there are any drugs which can help tinnitus. There is no proven safe effective drug therapy at present. Some patient with recent onset tinnitus may benefit from benzodiazepines (e.g vallium). Although helpful for some they are addictive and should not be used for more than a few days. Patients who are very anxious or depressed may benefit from treatment for these problems which may include cognative behaviour therapy or medications including antidepressants.
Further information can be obtained from these sites:
Most audiology centres in NHS hospital will provide treatment for tinnitus. These can be accessed via an ENT department referral. Your GP can refer you to a local ENT department /specialist who in-turn can refer you to the audiology centre for further assessment or treatment if appropriate.
Private clinics also provide help (e.g. here) but it is advised you discuss the issue first with a GP and if required with an ENT specialist.
Mr Rejali and Mercia Health have no relationship / link, financial or otherwise to any of the external websites / organisations listed above.