Do you suffer with tinnitus? Expert advice on the causes and dealing with symptoms

It can be an agonising and depressing condition
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  • Often hear ringing, humming, hissing or whooshing noises, even when it’s silent? You could have tinnitus. It can occur at any age, with around 30 per cent of Brits experiencing the sensation at some point, and 10 per cent having it persistently.

    ‘It can cause great distress and anxiety, particularly at the onset,’ says senior audiologist Duncan Collet- Fenson (astonhearing.co.uk). ‘Yet while there’s currently no cure, there are ways to make life more bearable.’ Here’s what can help…

    What is tinnitus?

    ‘Tinnitus is characterised by sounds that appear to be originating in the body or head, rather than from an outside source,’ says Duncan. You may also have reduced hearing, ear pain or discharge, nausea or vertigo (when the room ‘spins’). ‘Tinnitus is not a disease but usually a symptom of another underlying condition,’ adds Duncan.

    What causes tinnitus?

    The most common cause is damage to the inner ear, the cochlea. ‘This can occur from exposure to noise,’ says Duncan. It’s also caused by:

    ● Certain prescription drugs, especially if your ear is blocked with wax, or you have an ear infection or perforation.

    ● Changes in blood pressure,which can mean tinnitus is a useful ‘early warning sign’ of a moreserious condition.

    ● Stress and anxiety.

    ● Problems in nearby arteries/tissues.

    ‘Tinnitus is a complex issue,’ says Duncan. ‘Any sudden drop in hearing, often accompanied by tinnitus, shouldbe assessed quickly.’ Your GP will beable to refer you to an audiologist to rule out any serious health issues. ‘Armed with an understanding of the condition and an individual plan of action, you can reduce the negative impact of tinnitus on daily life,’ Duncan adds.

    Coping with tinnitus

    Consider counselling

    ‘Tinnitus can, at times, be very trying on mental health, and sufferers can feel alone,’ says Duncan. ‘Studies have shown that those who usually suffer from short-term tinnitus are likely to be experiencing high levels of stress during that period.’ Speak to friends and family so that they have a better understanding of your condition or join a specialist tinnitus forum. The British Tinnitus Association (tinnitus.org.uk,0800 018 0527) has plenty of information and also lists support groups across the UK. Ask your GP to refer you for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can help. ‘It’s fast becoming a popular treatment for tinnitus,’ says Duncan.

    Try to relax

    ‘Fatigue has been proven to influence tinnitus,’ says Duncan. Take time to read a book or focus on your breathing and do whatever necessary to relax your mind and body and try to ensure good quality sleep when possible. ‘Some people find propping their head up with an extra pillow helps to lessen congestion around the head, nose, eyes and ears, therefore alleviating pressure in the head,’ he adds. Listening to ‘white noise’ can also be a useful distraction.

    Use a hearing aid

    It’s estimated that 80 per cent of tinnitus cases are accompanied by some degree of hearing loss. ‘Wearing hearing devices seems to help to manage symptoms better,’ says Duncan. ‘They enhance the sounds you want to hear, such as voices and music, which can appear to lessen the noises associated with tinnitus.’

    Watch out for coffee

    ‘It stimulates the nervous system, which can worsen the symptoms,’ says Duncan. ‘Caffeine can also cause side effects such as headaches and nausea, which can potentially worsen pre-existing tinnitus.’

    Living with tinnitus

    ‘I’ve learnt how to manage it.’

    Louise Hatch, 57, from London, explains how she coped with her symptoms:

    ‘Having tinnitus can often feel relentless. Mine sounds like a constant high-pitched buzzing, in both ears, which occasionally turns into a high-frequency ringing. I also experience a whooshing noise, usually at night.

    My tinnitus started suddenly. After a few weeks, I saw my GP and was referred to my local NHS Ear, Nose and Throat Department. It turns out I have bi-lateral, congenital, sensorineural hearing loss. Before then, I honestly never realised I had a problem with my. I’m still not sure what caused my tinnitus, but it goes hand in hand with hearing loss.

    When I was diagnosed, almost 12 years ago, tinnitus affected my sleep, wellbeing and mental health, which in turn affected my relationships and work. Thankfully, with support from the British Tinnitus Association, friends and family, and a fantastic audiologist, I’ve learnt to manage it.

    My hearing aids are game- changers. They assist my brain with ‘habituation’, which means the ringing sounds are less prevalent as my brain is processing the everyday sounds I now hear more distinctly while wearing the aids.

    Plus, the way I now feel about tinnitus has shifted. I see it as a barometer for my health, especially as stress has a major impact, so I always take time to recharge, even if it’s only for a few moments each day.’