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Tinnitus: five things that you need to know about ringing ears


Tinnitus is when you hear noises, such as ringing or buzzing, that are not caused by sounds from the outside world. Where do these noises come from and are there any treatments that can help? Mr Nitesh Patel, Consultant Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon at The Holly Private Hospital, explains five important facts about tinnitus.

1. Tinnitus is a symptom and not a disease.

If you hear sounds that do not come from an outside source, this is called tinnitus. It is not normally a sign of anything serious. The type of sounds can vary widely. They are often described as ringing, whooshing, humming or buzzing. The sounds can also be rhythmic or even musical. You may hear these sounds in one ear or both ears, or they may seem to be generally within the head.

2. Many people experience tinnitus.

People of all ages, including children, can experience tinnitus. Up to 30% of people (that is, one in three) have tinnitus at some point in their life.

Although tinnitus is usually more common in older people with hearing loss, younger people increasingly experience tinnitus. This challenges the old view that tinnitus is simply due to hearing loss.

During the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, there has been a big increase in tinnitus cases. This applies even among people who have not experienced coronavirus or hearing loss. At challenging times, stress and poor quality sleep can affect your sensory system used to understand the world around you.

3. Most cases of tinnitus are caused by nerval signals in the brain.

If you develop tinnitus without an active condition that affects your hearing, it is called primary tinnitus. This type of tinnitus is caused by electrical signals (nerve impulses) in the brain. Your brain adapts to experience and responds to stress. Any stressful experiences as a result of a physical illness, injury or emotional upset can make your brain overactive and trigger tinnitus.

Secondary tinnitus is much less common. This occurs with an active or acute ear disorder, such as an ear infection, ear injury or swelling affecting the hearing system. Rarely, tinnitus can be due to hearing actual sounds within the head caused by jaw or muscle movements or circulating blood. The medical name for this is pulsatile tinnitus.

To diagnose what type of tinnitus you have, an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor asks you about your medical history. They also examine you and arrange any diagnostic tests that you need, such as a hearing test and CT or MRI scan.

4. There are ways to cope with the emotional impact of tinnitus.

Tinnitus is usually worse when you focus your attention on the sound or are stressed. Learning to focus attention away from the sound can reduce the emotional impact of tinnitus. Other ways of coping are improving the quality of your sleep and practising mindfulness (a type of meditation) and relaxation techniques.

There is a lot of unreliable information on the Internet and some people are misinformed about tinnitus. This can lead to significant healthy anxiety. If you talk to a health professional with experience of managing tinnitus and get accurate information, you are likely to feel less anxious.

5. There are treatment options for tinnitus.

Secondary tinnitus linked to an active ear disorder often improves after you have treatment for that ear disorder. This may involve:

• removing wax that blocks the ear canal (the passage to the eardrum)
• treating an ear infection
• having surgery for a treatable cause of hearing loss

Primary tinnitus is not harmful. It is not a specific disease and does not need a specific cure. However, bothersome and persistent ringing in the ears can affect your quality of life. There are various hearing (audiological) and psychological treatments to help reduce and control the brain nerve signals that cause the tinnitus.

If you have tinnitus regularly and this disrupts your daily life, it is important to get medical help. You can always see our specialist team at The Holly Private Hospital for expert advice.

About Mr Nitesh Patel

Mr Nitesh Patel, Consultant Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, has a specialist interest in tinnitus. To book an appointment with Mr Patel at The Holly Private Hospital, please call 020 3504 8481 or complete this form online.

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