If our ears are damaged and we are not hearing well, this will have two consequences. First of all, the brain will be missing the information from the ears. This is called hearing loss.
Second, the brain tries to fill the gap created by this hearing loss. As a result of this, a person with hearing loss might start hearing a sound that others can’t hear. This sound is called tinnitus.
Tinnitus is a symptom that can develop as a result of hearing loss. If you have tinnitus you will be hearing a sound but there will be no object around you which is creating that sound. This tinnitus happens because the brain is trying to make up for the lack of input from the ear due to the hearing loss.
Tinnitus is a very common condition affecting millions of people worldwide. Most often, people with tinnitus describe it as a ringing sound or a noise like buzzing, whistling, or hissing.
It is very likely that you have heard a tinnitus sound yourself for a very short period of time, for example, after attending a loud concert or after exposure to a sudden loud noise such as a loud hammer sound. If you have this brief tinnitus, don’t be afraid—for most people it will disappear on its own.
However, for some people it does not go away and they hear this tinnitus sound constantly, which is irritating to them. Some of these people are bothered by their tinnitus so much that they find it hard to fall asleep, they find it difficult to concentrate, or they have problems following a conversation because they hear the tinnitus all the time.
Our hearing system, especially the hair cells in the inner ear, is very sensitive and can easily be damaged by loud sounds. Once these hair cells are damaged, the damage is permanent.
Examples of these loud noises could be construction work, traffic noise, airplane engine noise, and others — but also could be pleasurable sounds such a TV at a very loud volume, loud music at a concert, or sound from i-pods, mp3 players, radios, or other music devices. It is extremely important to protect our ears from these loud noises, as they can permanently damage our hearing.
Sound is funneled through the outside of the ear, which is called the pinna, into the ear canal. These two parts are called the outer ear. The sound then vibrates the ear drum, which in turn sets the ossicles (a set of three tiny bones in the middle ear) in motion.
This motion of the ossicles creates waves in the fluid of the snail-shaped cochlea. The cochlea is located deep inside, in an area called the inner ear. The cochlea is the place where the sound energy is converted into electrical impulses by thousands of tiny hair cells.
The auditory nerve passes this information to the brain, where the details of the sound such as its characteristics, pitch, loudness, and direction, are then understood, so that the boy recognizes the sound of the engine as a car approaching from behind him. This is a rapid process that happens in less than a second.
What Can be Done for Tinnitus?
Tinnitus means hearing an extra sound, so it’s easy to make an assumption that it is a problem of the ear. This is what the researchers thought many years ago.
However, in the past few decades, many researchers have studied brain scans that record activity in different parts of the brain. These researchers have realized that tinnitus is not only the problem of the ear, but there are different areas in the brain that are involved in tinnitus as well.
Scientists all over the world are working every day toward gaining a better understanding of tinnitus and our knowledge about this condition has been improving every year. These scientists meet every year at conferences and meetings, for example, the Tinnitus Research Initiative, International Tinnitus Seminar, and TINNET, to discuss the latest findings in the area of tinnitus.
There are several specialized clinics dedicated to helping people with tinnitus and several ways to manage tinnitus, which have been developed for people who suffer from this condition.
There is currently no cure for tinnitus, but there are several ways to manage it or partly reduce it. Here are some useful tips for managing tinnitus. Feel free to share some of these with people you know who have tinnitus.
Know your tinnitus
It is important to understand tinnitus, its causes, and what can be done to manage it. This information can be valuable in dealing with tinnitus and correcting the wrong beliefs associated with it.
It is important to understand that tinnitus is not a sign of danger, it is a non-threatening sound and there is no need to be afraid of it.
Relaxation and distraction
Some people with tinnitus experience that it is reduced when they are relaxed, so it is good to reduce stress. This can be achieved by using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, walking, sport activities, doing enjoyable things, or any other activities which can be relaxing.
Some people also benefit from focusing their attention away from tinnitus by doing things like listening to soothing music or doing something interesting. When they aren’t focusing on the tinnitus, it can make it less bothersome.
Seek professional help
Besides hearing loss, there can be several other causes of tinnitus. Some medical professionals are trained to help people with tinnitus.
Those experts include ear/nose/throat doctors, audiologists (hearing experts), neurologists (brain experts), psychologists, and physical therapists. These professionals can offer several management options based on the details of the tinnitus and the other symptoms the patient might be having.
Examples of these management options are hearing aids, devices called maskers that “cover up” the sound of the tinnitus, counseling to learn how to deal with the tinnitus, and brain stimulation, to name just a few. It is also important to remember that every person with tinnitus is unique and everyone responds differently to the types of treatment offered. Therefore, it is extremely important to get professional help. The tinnitus experts can help find the best treatments to reduce the tinnitus.
Authors: Winfried Schlee, Giriraj Singh Shekhawat. CC-BY 4.0. Photo: woodleywonderworks Flickr