What is tinnitus? Symptoms, causes and treatments explained

If you’re experiencing a ringing in your ears that nobody else around you can hear, you’re not alone.

Tinnitus is a condition affecting approximately 13% of UK adults on a daily basis, with around 30% of us expected to experience symptoms at some point in our lives.

Many of us will be familiar with the peculiar buzzing sound that can remain prevalent in our ears after being in a particularly loud environment, such as a concert. This usually fades after some time, but for those who suffer with persistent tinnitus – these noises are heard constantly.

Tinnitus can have a huge impact on someone’s quality of life, and destroy their ability to enjoy social occasions and everyday life – even sitting down to watch TV can be a challenge.

The good news is, there is help out there for tinnitus sufferers. There are plenty of ways to manage tinnitus symptoms once you’ve figured out the root cause of it. 

In this blog, we’ll detail the common symptoms and causes of tinnitus, and the treatments that can help to keep it under control. 

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is referred to as a perception of noises in the brain or ear, which aren’t coming from the outside world. It’s usually described as a ringing in the ears, and can be present all of the time or come and go.

There are two types of tinnitus:

  • Subjective tinnitus – This is the main form of tinnitus that most people will suffer from (the typical ringing sounds in the ears that nobody else can hear).
  • Pulsatile tinnitus – This is less common, and usually presents itself as a rhythmic pulsing or whooshing sound, often in time with your pulse. A doctor may be able to hear this type of tinnitus if you were to be examined.

Tinnitus is a common condition which people may suffer acutely (temporarily) or chronically, which means the symptoms are constant. For those experiencing persistent tinnitus, the symptoms can be extremely distressing and debilitating to an extent.

Persistent tinnitus can make it difficult to concentrate, listen to everyday sounds and engage in conversations. 

Symptoms of tinnitus

For most people, tinnitus will sound like a ringing in the ears, but it has also been described as other complex sounds, including:

  • Buzzing
  • Humming
  • Hissing
  • Whistling
  • Clicking
  • Roaring

The noises produced by tinnitus can vary in pitch – from high-pitched ringing to low roaring sounds. The noises may be persistent and heard constantly throughout the day, or they may be heard briefly at unpredictable intervals.

tinnitus sufferer

Tinnitus causes

The exact cause of tinnitus remains a mystery, and there is no single diagnosis for all tinnitus sufferers. However, tinnitus can usually be attributed as a symptom of other underlying health issues or problems in the audiological system.

The main causes of tinnitus are:

  • Hearing loss – Most people suffering with tinnitus will also be experiencing hearing loss, from severe cases to even the most mild.
    Hearing loss sufferers have damaged cochlea (tiny, delicate hair cells in the inner ear). The cochlea moves when the ear receives sound waves, which sends electrical signals to the brain and are in turn, interpreted as sounds.
    When the cochlea is damaged, they can send random electrical signals to the brain which translate as sounds, i.e. tinnitus.
  • Ménière’s disease – This condition affects the inner ear and can cause excessive fluid build-up which can lead to tinnitus and hearing loss.
  • A buildup of ear wax – Too much ear wax in the ear canal can change the pressure in your ear and cause tinnitus. If this is the case, the problem may easily be solved via ear wax removal.
  • Ear infection – Similarly to excessive ear wax, an ear infection can cause blockages in the ear canal, and therefore increase the pressure in your ear.
  • Exposure to loud noise – When the ears are subject to excessive loud noise over a period of time, it can damage the hair cells in the ears and lead to the onset of tinnitus.
  • Head or neck injuries – Trauma in the head or neck area can impact the inner ear, brain functions or hearing nerves which can lead to tinnitus in the ear of the side which had the most impact.

There are many other causes of tinnitus which can be linked to either developing or exacerbating the symptoms. Other ear problems, injuries that affect the nerves in the ear or audiological system in the brain, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes, anemia, thyroid problems, autoimmune disorders and many more can cause tinnitus.

Treatments for tinnitus

Whilst there is yet to be a ‘cure’ for tinnitus, there are plenty of methods that can be used to help manage the symptoms, decrease the stress caused by the noise, and ultimately improve the quality of life.

The method which will be the most effective in reducing or masking the symptoms for any one individual, will largely depend on the root cause. In most cases, treating the underlying condition which is causing tinnitus will have a huge impact on reducing or even removing symptoms.

Some of the most common tinnitus treatments include:

  • Hearing aids – For those who are suffering from hearing loss related tinnitus, hearing aids can help to provide great relief. Hearing aids help the wearer to hear clearer and at a higher volume, which can help to make tinnitus less noticeable.
  • Ear wax removal – In cases where tinnitus is being caused by an excessive build-up of wax, microsuction ear wax removal can provide instant relief by unblocking the ear canal and releasing the pressure on the ear. For the majority of people, this will remove tinnitus altogether.
  • Relaxation techniques – Tinnitus can be triggered by or worsened when a person is under a great deal of stress. Learning relaxation techniques through meditation or mindfulness therapy can be helpful in reducing stress and frustration in order to cope better with the symptoms.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – For those with debilitating, persistent tinnitus which is preventing them from enjoying everyday life, CBT with a psychologist can help a person to spend less time thinking about their tinnitus and manage the anxiety caused by it.

Risk factors for developing tinnitus

Tinnitus can present itself in anyone at any age but there are certain stages of your life, habits, and behaviours that can increase your risk of developing it. These include:

  • Age – Tinnitus is more likely to develop as we get older as the number of functioning nerve fibres in our ears decline – this can lead to a greater risk of developing hearing problems which can result in tinnitus.
  • Noise exposure – Those who work in particularly noisy environments are at greater risk of tinnitus, due to the increased likelihood of damage to the ear canal over time.
  • Smoking and drinking alcohol – Both behaviours lead to a higher risk of developing tinnitus, due to the impact that alcohol and nicotine have on blood flow.
  • Specific health conditions – Those suffering from high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, arthritis, obesity and more have a higher chance of developing tinnitus.

How to prevent tinnitus

As tinnitus is essentially a by-product of another health condition or illness, it’s difficult to prevent tinnitus itself.

However, there are various methods that can be implemented in order to decrease the likelihood of developing some of these conditions in the first place. These include:

  • Reduce your listening volume – Are you a regular headphone user? Make a conscious effort to turn the volume down and take regular breaks from listening, to reduce your exposure to loud noises. This will reduce the impact that loud music has on your ears and therefore lessen your chances of developing hearing loss, and tinnitus.
  • Use hearing protection – For those who work in particularly noisy environments and can’t avoid loud sounds – such as construction, machinery or music – wearing ear protection is a must. Over exposure to these noises all day, every day, can cause irreversible damage to the ears.
  • Take care of your health – It goes without saying that eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and drinking plenty of water can help to keep you in good physical health. Naturally, this reduces the risk of developing tinnitus-related conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.
  • Limit smoking and alcohol – Excessive consumption of alcohol or use of cigarettes can affect the body’s natural blood flow and contribute to developing tinnitus symptoms. Limiting engaging in these habits can minimise your tinnitus risk.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety – Whilst this is undoubtedly more difficult to control, tinnitus can sometimes be triggered when you are stressed or anxious. Trying to take the time to look after yourself and de-stress can prevent the onset of symptoms.

Are you suffering from Tinnitus? The Hearing Specialist offers independent Tinnitus consultation and assessments in South London and Surrey. 

We can help to identify the cause of your tinnitus, and recommend the most suitable treatment options to help manage your symptoms. Book an appointment today.