What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is defined as a noise in the ears or the head that is not related to an external sound. It is frequently described as ringing, buzzing, humming, hissing, whistling, etc. It can be perceived in one or both ears, or your head. Most people have experienced tinnitus at one point or another and at times, it can be very distressing.
There are a variety of factors that can be associated with tinnitus. These include aging, hearing loss, loud noise exposure, allergies, head/ear trauma, certain ear diseases and stress, just to name a few. Generally, it is not life threatening. Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. Though there is currently no known cure for tinnitus, there are coping strategies you can discuss with your audiologist.
Regardless, it is highly recommended you visit an Otologist (ear doctor) or Audiologist (hearing specialist) to make sure it is not the result of a serious medical problem.
Selectivity and attention
Your brain and hearing system have an automatic property of selectivity (the ability to sort out sounds that are unimportant and ignore them). You can focus on certain important, strange, or worrying sounds for special attention and at the same time, filter out insignificant sounds. We can distinguish distinct sounds from a group of sounds. For example, most people can pick out the sound of their name in a noisy room. Some can detect a single musical instrument in a band. However, many people with tinnitus tend to focus on the new, unfamiliar and unwanted noise when it starts and begin to worry about it.
Imagine you have a new clock. Other people hear it ticking and remark how loud it is. At first, you notice how loud it is, too. After a while, you don’t hear it. You have “habituated” to it and are no longer conscious of it. Your brain has decided to stop monitoring the sound. Your brain can learn to stop hearing your tinnitus too.
Tinnitus does not get worse the longer you have it, the older you get or the harder of hearing you become. It is quite the opposite! But you can do things to help the habituation process, and lessen some of the effects.
Anxiety, tension & learning how to relax
It is very common to worry about tinnitus, which may cause increased tension. Tension and worry can make the tinnitus worse. Learning how to relax is part of the relief process.
The picture below shows how the cycle of tension and worry make tinnitus worse.
You can break this cycle! If you break it, the chain of events will reverse.
Here are some techniques for coping with tinnitus…
You can use simple relaxation exercises to train your body to relax. Here are two examples that are easy to incorporate into your daily lifestyle:
Breathing relaxation exercise:
- Breathe slowly and deeply,
- Hold your breath a moment.
- Relax, and then let your breath out.
- Wait a moment, then breathe slowly and deeply again, and so on.
Muscle relaxation exercise:
- Sit in a chair or lay on a bed. Find a comfortable position.
- Breathe slowly.
- Tighten your fist. Feel the tightness in your hand and wrist.
- Breathe out. As you do, relax your hand and wrist. Feel the difference.
Repeat this with other parts of your body. Try it with your other hand, each arm, leg, foot, your back, neck, face and jaw.
You can do these exercises regularly, when and where you have the time and space. You will improve with practice. You should start to feel the benefits quickly. You will gradually learn how to relax your body without having to do the exercises. As you learn to relax your body, you will also find it easier to relax your mind.
Some people find other treatments have similar benefits to help you relax. Find what works best for you, and then practice it often. You might try:
- Improved posture,
- Craniosacral therapy,
- Resting in a relaxing environment, with special aromas, dim lights, and soft music
You can read books, listen to audiotapes, or take relaxation exercise classes to learn more about these methods of relaxing.
Sound therapy/sound enriched environment
Avoid quiet. Your brain will try to hear any sound more clearly when it is quiet. This includes the sound of your tinnitus. Increase background sounds whenever there is an absence of noise in the environment, as often and for as long as you can. This is called “sound therapy.” Sound therapy reduces the contrast between your tinnitus and the background sound. This reduces the impact of your tinnitus and the tension it causes.
It is normal for you to pay less and less attention to your tinnitus, until you are hardly aware of it. This is the “habituation” process described earlier. To adjust faster, you can increase the amount of background sound you hear. Examples of helpful background sounds are:
- Pleasant, quieter sounds from a television, radio, or recorded music
- A fan
- Natural sounds through an open window
You can also increase background sounds with:
- “Sound conditioners,” small devices that play natural sounds (such as ocean waves, rain or a stream), or “white” noise (a continuous “shhh”-like sound).
- A wearable noise generator (a device that resembles and is worn like a hearing aid, but which makes its own “shhh” sound.)
- A hearing aid, even if you have only slight difficulty in hearing.
We suggest you refrain from using background noise that is too loud or too soft. Start with the loudest level you can tolerate below the sound of your tinnitus.
You may need sound therapy in bed, whether asleep or awake. Tinnitus can be annoying when you can’t get to sleep, or when you wake up during the night. Try sleeping with the window open, using a fan or listening to a ticking clock in your room.
Use headphones with your TV or radio if background sound annoys people around you. In-the-ear headphones are best. Use an under-pillow speaker or sound pillow attached to the sound source when you are in bed, if necessary.
Health & recreation
How is your general health?
Are you getting a good, varied diet?
Are you getting plenty of exercise and rest?
Are you involved in some enjoyable activity?
If certain foods, drinks, activities or situations aggravate your tinnitus, you could cut down a little, eliminate them entirely, or find alternatives. By reducing sodium, caffeine and alcoholic beverages and increasing light exercise, you may find that your tinnitus lessens and your general health will likely improve.
Hobbies and interests can enhance your life and help you enjoy it to the fullest. Some people view tinnitus as a positive. It gave them a push to try something new and rekindle old interests. It’s never too late to learn or get involved!
Earplugs will not help your tinnitus. They will make the tinnitus seem louder while you wear them. Avoid wearing earplugs that make it more difficult to hear, except in very loud noise, if you have tinnitus. Earplugs prevent your ears from getting accustomed to normal sounds if you have hyperacusis. Do not use earplugs unless you are using them temporarily in a noise that is unbearably loud to you. Always use hearing protection when you are exposed to very loud sounds, whether or not you have tinnitus or hyperacusis.
Temporary deafness and temporary tinnitus
Loud sounds, such as a rock concert or fireworks, or loud work noises can cause dullness of hearing, tinnitus, or both immediately afterwards. This will usually disappear after a few minutes or hours. These temporary effects should be taken as a warning. There is a risk of permanent damage if you repeatedly expose your ears to loud sounds.