Tinnitus - and what you can do

Considering that around one-in-10 people experience tinnitus occasionally, it's surprising that little is known about the condition by many of us.

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What is it?
The first thing to note is that tinnitus (which derives from the term for "ringing" in Latin) is actually a symptom rather than a disease.

Sufferers experience phantom noises either in just one ear or both - or sometimes they seem to be in the middle of the head. Sometimes the noises sound like ringing, and can be low, mid or high-pitched. It may be continuous or it may come and go.

Although one-in-10 people suffer occasionally, serious cases are rarer and it is thought to prevent one-in-200 people from leading a normal life.

What causes it?
The causes are not fully understood, although it is strongly linked to exposure to loud noises such as gunfire or amplified music.

It can also occur as part of natural hearing loss as we age, as a side effect of some medications or along with congenital hearing loss in those with a genetic predication for hearing problems.

In some cases an actual sound can be detected by doctors coming from a patient's ears. This is called "objective tinnitus" and is thought to be caused by muscle spasms causing clicking or crackling noises in the inner ear.

More common is "subjective tinnitus", which has no external manifestations and which appears to have a wide array of possible causes.

Depression, stress and anxiety can be triggers for tinnitus in some patients.

How is it treated?
There are numerous treatments given for tinnitus, which are selected according to the type of tinnitus experienced and the circumstances of the sufferer.

Improving the patient's hearing (possibly with a hearing aid) can improve matters because tinnitus occurs when some people strain to hear something.

Other patients are given sound therapy, where gentle soothing sounds are played to mask the tinnitus - while for some just having the radio on in the background works as a similar coping strategy.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be prescribed to try to dispel depression or anxiety in some patients, where physicians feel that could be the main causative or exacerbating factor.

Tinnitus Retraining Therapy combines sound therapy and counselling to attempt to re-train the brain to cope with the condition and "tune it out". It is still quite rare in the UK but the principles of it are used ad-hoc by many specialists.

There is an element of prevention as well as treatment, with those who spend time in noisy environments urged to wear earplugs.

Have you suffered from tinnitus? What helped you? Comment below...