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Why is there noise in my ears?

Tinnitus is a common medical condition that affects approximately one in seven people.  It is best described as being the perception of noise in the ears or head which does not come from an external source, and the condition can be debilitating for some sufferers.  Tinnitus is not an illness or disease, rather it is a symptom generated in the auditory system.

Although there has been much progress on the research of tinnitus, it remains a clinical and scientific enigma.  It can be constant or recurring, can be in one ear or both or can be centrally located in the patient’s head, and the noise can be low, medium or high-pitched.  One in five tinnitus sufferers have a level of tinnitus that affects their lifestyle, relationships or mental health. 

Many people feel alone with the condition.  When we speak of tinnitus, most people only think of the main symptom which is noise.  There is a lack of understanding of the wider impact of tinnitus in terms of isolation whereby the patient finds it difficult to talk to family or friends about the condition.  Tinnitus is very difficult to live with and can cause anxiety, which in turn can impact negatively on the tinnitus itself.  It can be distracting and exhausting.  Sufferers may be short-tempered, distracted or withdrawn, and concentration is often affected.

The main risk factor for tinnitus is hearing loss.  Other risk factors include high levels of occupational or recreational noise exposure, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption, stress, genetic factors, wax build-up, arthritis, diabetes, head injury, and some medications.  Tinnitus can also accompany underlying conditions affecting the auditory system.

Unfortunately, there is no medication available to directly cure tinnitus.  This leads many patients to believe that there is no help available and that they must “live with it”.  Thankfully, there are a range of treatments available that can help with this troublesome condition. 

For two thirds of sufferers, their tinnitus is as a direct result of hearing loss which may even be a very mild loss.  The use of hearing aids usually negates the noise generated, reduces listening effort, improves communication and reduces stress associated with hearing loss.  Some hearing aids also have a combination device that generates a sound to distract from the tinnitus noise.

Sound therapy devices can be used to reduce the contrast between tinnitus and background sounds.  This helps to distract the brain from paying attention to the tinnitus noise.

Tinnitus can be aggravated by stress or tiredness, and a regular relaxation routine can alleviate stress and make it easier to manage your tinnitus.

Practicing mindfulness has been proven to have positive effects.  It does not change the nature of tinnitus but may help to change your relationship with it.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can provide the patient with techniques to cope with distress and negative feelings.  It helps to change how you perceive tinnitus and what you can do about it.

In general, a well-balanced diet, good sleep, exercise and overall wellbeing, creates a positive outlook.

Sean Mullahy is a qualified Hearing Aid Audiologist and member of the Irish Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists.  He is a trained Tinnitus Advisor and is available for consultation with tinnitus sufferers in the Harmony Hearing clinics in Castlebar, Ballina or Tuam.  He can be contacted on 096 48942 or 087 3444612.