Tinnitus is a hearing condition which can drive its sufferers to distraction.
All you want is to be free of it, but it seems like there is no escape.
Some versions of acute tinnitus have simple causes which can be treated relatively easily but what about more serious causes?
Research is ongoing but is there actually a cure for tinnitus?
Firstly, we need to look at what tinnitus is…
What is tinnitus?
If you’ve ever emerged from somewhere where you needed to shout in your friend’s ear in order for him to hear you, there’s a good chance that, when you leave for somewhere a quieter, you’ll hear a ‘ringing in the ears’ – a kind of ‘ghost’ of the noise you’ve just left.
What you have experienced is tinnitus – hearing sounds which are not externally present. Hopefully, that ringing will go away after a short while but, for many people, it’s a permanent condition which, at its worst, can be exasperating, whether it’s in one ear, or both.
The ringing in the ears mentioned above is not the only type of Tinnitus, however. The sounds are very wide-ranging in nature and can range enormously from low-pitched hums to high-pitched tones, or from a whooshing noise to a metallic buzz.
‘Not externally present’ means that the sounds you hear either may not be present at all and only you can hear them (no, that doesn’t mean you’re mad!) – in which case it is termed Subjective Tinnitus. Or they may be real, and audible to a doctor in an examination, but are produced inside your body, in which case it is termed Objective Tinnitus.
The two types are differentiated because the causes and possible treatments may be different.
Objective Tinnitus and causes
The most common type of Objective tinnitus is called Pulsatile tinnitus. The ‘puls-’ stem comes from the fact that it is a rhythmic sound which matches the heartbeat (or the pulse) and is caused by the sound of blood pumping through the blood vessels near the ears.
The reasons you can hear the blood pumping are down to both (or either), the actual physical process and becoming more aware of it.
For example, as a temporary condition, you can become aware of a pulsing sound during heavy exercise, when your heart is pumping faster. This can be even more common if you are wearing something over your ears, or if you have a cold, or some other condition which reduces your ability to hear external sounds and your ears become more aware of internal sounds.
If you are suffering more permanent hearing problems, this problem, as well as other forms of tinnitus, becomes more likely.
Other possible causes of a general increase in blood flow include:
- an over-active thyroid
- atherosclerosis, thickening of blood vessel walls, can have the effect of faster blood flow by forcing a normal blood flow through an effectively thinner blood vessel. Imagine squeezing a hose pipe between your finger and thumb and you’ll get the general idea.
Subjective Tinnitus and causes
There are a wide number of possible causes for the types of tinnitus which are heard only by the sufferer. These vary from things as simple as earwax or ear infections, to physical defects.
- Otosclerosis, a problem with the bone formation in the middle-ear
- Acoustic neuroma, a (usually benign) tumour of the auditory nerve
- Injuries, such as skull fractures and whiplash
- Abnormal bone growth
- Perforated ear drum
Probably the biggest culprit, however (harking back to the loud environment I mentioned at the beginning), is the lack of sufficient ear protection for people who have spent long periods under such circumstances.
Examples may include men who work using loud equipment or machines. Some musicians, sitting in vulnerable positions in a large orchestra have been known to suffer from tinnitus, as they are less likely to wear ear protectors than workmen using pneumatic drills.
General hearing loss can worsen the effects of tinnitus, as can stress.
The best thing is not to get it in the first place, of course.
You should therefore always avoid exposure to very noisy environments, where possible. The duration of exposure can make a big difference, so rest in between is useful, but even short exposure to extremely loud noises, such as that which soldiers who have been near to an explosion experience, can give you tinnitus.
Good general health also seems to help, so good diet, enough sleep, exercise, etc. are all helpful.