Topic 9: What you need to know about tinnitus

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Tinnitus is a hearing condition that can present itself as a persistent ringing or buzzing sound in the ear.

For many people, tinnitus is mild, with the sound only heard at a low volume when in a quiet environment.

For others, though, it can range from bothersome noise to an all-consuming jackhammer sound pulsing through their ears.

Tinnitus mostly occurs when our brain is trying to compensate for some type of hearing loss. It’s usually a symptom of problems with the auditory system, such as those caused by exposure to loud noises or middle-ear conditions, although the issue can be as simple as an excess of earwax.

Some medical conditions and medications, such as high doses of aspirin or antibiotics, can also trigger tinnitus.

Treating tinnitus

Nearly 20 per cent of Australians suffer from tinnitus at some point in their life, with 2 per cent dealing with severe tinnitus that disrupts their quality of life.

And while there is no cure, there are ways to ease the irritation.

Sound therapy

Australian Hearing senior audiologist Catherine Hart says sound therapy trains the mind to disassociate from tinnitus.

“We often use the ‘mozzie-refrigerator’ analogy,” Hart explains.

“We can hear a fridge buzzing in the background and it doesn’t bother us, but if it’s a mozzie, we just have that horrible psychological association of ‘Oh I don’t like mozzies’.”

“So we have to try to get the brain not to hone in on the tinnitus and to not see it as a threatening sound.”

Soothing music and sounds help mask tinnitus by filling the brain with comforting noise.

“With tinnitus, we want to flood the brain with sound and really make the tinnitus a background sound and slowly, over time, have the brain ignoring it and forgetting it and hearing it as a fridge motor instead of a mozzie,” Hart says.

She suggests watering the garden, or other water-related activities, and listening to classical music and soothing audio tracks as some of the most useful methods to distract the brain from tinnitus.

Medications

Australian Hearing recommends talking to your GP if you are suffering from tinnitus while taking medication or living with another medical condition.

Vascular conditions, arthritis medication and anti-depressants are just some of the known triggers for tinnitus.

Devices

If the tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, an audiologist will fit a hearing aid and match the pitch of the tinnitus to the device.

This stops your auditory system straining to find a ‘signal’ – strain that causes tinnitus to materialise.

Other devices, such as the Sound Oasis or Neuromonics, play music directly into your ears to help drown out the tinnitus. Neuromonics are custom-tuned to each person’s hearing loss and tinnitus pitch.

The devices are used in conjunction with a 6-month, structured plan of support, monitoring and counselling.

What not to do

While it is sometimes difficult to ignore your tinnitus, focusing on the sound or becoming irritated and stressed by it will make it worse.

It’s important to find relaxation techniques or activities to distract yourself from the tinnitus because doing so will train your brain to ignore it.

While some people are tempted to keep a diary to track their symptoms, this is not recommended because it trains the brain to become more aware of the sound instead.

Things to remember

It’s important to know you are not alone. Thousands of Australians are living with tinnitus and if properly managed, you can dramatically reduce your symptoms and teach your brain to ignore any that remain.

You can visit Hearing Help to speak directly to an audiologist about your options and consult your GP if you’re concerned about any medications you’re taking.

With a little patience and practice, you can learn to control this infuriating condition and live with auditory ease again.

Do you have tinnitus? How do you manage it?

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