What is Tinnitus
Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the absence of external auditory stimulation. It most commonly presents as a high-pitched noise, but can also be perceived as buzzing, ringing, humming or pulsing. It is quite a common condition, affecting 10-15% of the adult population.
Tinnitus is a problem when the process of habituation for some reason does not happen naturally. Habituation is the process through which your brain perceives something new and adapts to it, e.g. when you start wearing a watch, you will be aware of it until you get used to it, after a while you will not notice it anymore.
Tinnitus studies with imaging have suggested the involvement of central structures involved in hearing and auditory processing, attention and emotion. Hearing loss and reduced tolerance for sounds that are not necessarily loud (hyperacusis) often accompany tinnitus.
Tinnitus can have a negative impact on a person’s physical and emotional well-being, causing increased stress levels, concentration problems, sleeping problems and reduced ability to hear. These in turn may have a negative effect on the person’s social life, personal relationships, and ability to work.
Research has shown that the COVID-19 situation has increased tinnitus distress amongst patients. This highlights how stress and anxiety can exacerbate tinnitus. It also illustrates the complexities associated with experiencing tinnitus and how both internal factors, such as increased anxiety and feelings of loneliness, and external factors, such as changes to daily routines, can have a significant effect on the condition.
1 in 10 people suffer from tinnitus of which 20% have tinnitus that is disabling.
For those with chronic tinnitus, the tinnitus related neural signal is continually active at subconscious levels. Generally, we cannot completely eliminate symptoms of severe tinnitus. However, with correct management and approaches to intervention, persons can reduce the severity of tinnitus and gain improvements in their quality of life.
What causes Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is multi-factorial, meaning there are various factors that can contribute to it. Research indicates that 80-90% of tinnitus patients have an underlying hearing loss, of which they may not be aware of. Only 1% of this population have severely debilitating tinnitus warranting further medical and professional intervention by a team of professionals.
One of the primary causes of tinnitus is noise exposure. Even though there is better awareness of the risks of damaging the hearing from excessive noise exposure, young people have increased their overall noise exposure. The popularity of mobile music devices such as iPods and the general increased levels of industrial noise will all contribute to increased hearing difficulties and tinnitus for this younger generation.
Tinnitus can also accompany a wide variety of auditory pathologies including earwax, otitis media (middle ear fluid and infection), Otosclerosis, Meniere’s Disease, administration of ototoxic medications, 8th cranial nerve tumours, trauma to the head, TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorders, neck disorders, age, diuretics (furosemide), quinine and congenital deafness.
A thorough audiological assessment can help to rule out many of the above conditions.