The word 'tinnitus' comes from the Latin 'tinnire' meaning 'to ring'. Those who suffer from tinnitus often describe it as a ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears. It is basically any noise heard which has no identifiable external cause or source. The sound may come from one ear, both ears or from the middle of the head. It may be low, medium or high pitched, it may consist of one or more noises and it may be temporary or continuous. Tinnitus is quite common and can occur at any age. In severe cases it can cause lack of concentration, insomnia, anxiety and even depression.

Causes

Sound waves entering the inner ear cause tiny hairs to move. This movement triggers an electrical pulse in the auditory nerve which is then carried to the brain where it is interpreted as sound. If the nerves in the ear are damaged, abnormal pulses are generated which the brain also interprets as sound. The way that your brain interprets sound is very complex indeed. It enables you to pick out the sounds that you want to hear and filter out those that you don't. If you develop tinnitus and you become aware of it, you may find it difficult to ignore. The more anxious you become, the more noticeable the noise becomes.

The actual cause of tinnitus is not fully understood although it is usually associated with some kind of hearing problem. Research has shown that tinnitus may be linked to the following:

  • Noise: people who are frequently exposed to loud noise or loud music are likely to experience tinnitus at some point
  • Wax: the build up of ear wax can cause tinnitus
  • Hearing loss: people often suffer from hearing loss as they get older and this is often accompanied by tinnitus
  • Infection: ear infections can cause pain and tinnitus if left untreated
  • Ménière's disease: this condition is caused by increased pressure in the inner ear and can cause tinnitus, deafness and vertigo
  • Otosclerosis (deafness caused by reduced movement of one of the three tiny bones in the middle ear): this condition often causes tinnitus as well as hearing loss
  • Perforated eardrum: a perforated eardrum can cause tinnitus
  • Acoustic neuroma: tinnitus coming from just one ear may be caused by a tumour affecting the auditory nerve
  • Joint problems: problems with the jaw joint known as the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) can lead to tinnitus as well as pain in the head or face
  • Injury: A head, neck or ear injury may lead to tinnitus
  • Physical abnormalities: sometimes an abnormality of the Eustachian tube (the tube which connects the cavity at the back of the mouth to the middle ear space) can cause tinnitus
  • Stress: tinnitus can be brought on or made worse by stress.· Anaemia: tinnitus can be associated with anaemia
  • Thyroid disorders: tinnitus has also been associated with an overactive thyroid
  • Changes in blood flow: tinnitus may develop if blood flow changes, increases or becomes faster in the blood vessels near your ears. This can happen in conditions such as high blood pressure or narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • Autoimmune disorders: tinnitus can be a symptom of the autoimmune disorder systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).· Dental problems: impacted wisdom teeth can lead to tinnitus
  • Medicines: tinnitus can be a side effect of taking certain medicines. These medicines can include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen; antimalarial medicines such as quinine and chloroquine; loop diuretics such as furosemide (frusemide), bumetanide and torasemide; the antibacterials gentamicin and streptomycin and the cancer treatment drugs cisplatin, carboplatin and oxaliplatin
  • Substance abuse: solvent, alcohol or drug abuse has been known to cause tinnitus
  • Withdrawal: some people suffer from tinnitus if they have been taking benzodiazepine medicines such as diazepam and temazepam and they stop taking them

Preventing Tinnitus

Avoid exposure to loud noise whenever possible and keep your ears free of wax by using products designed to soften ear wax on a regular basis.

Treatment

  • There is no treatment specifically designed for tinnitus. However, if the tinnitus is caused by another condition, it may clear up if the underlying condition is treated
  • Betahistine and cinnarizine can be used to treat vertigo, tinnitus and hearing loss associated with Ménière's disease. It works by reducing pressure in the inner ear
  • If your tinnitus is caused by the build-up of ear wax, a few drops of olive or almond oil dropped into the ear can help to soften ear wax enabling it to drain away. There are also many products available from your pharmacy which have a similar effect
  • Some people find that masking the noise by having a radio or music playing in the background helps
  • Sound generators can be used to produce 'white noise'. Exposure to this noise helps the brain to filter out background noise including the sounds associated with tinnitus
  • Relaxation techniques and breathing exercises may help to reduce stress levels which in turn may help to control the tinnitus

When To See A Doctor

If you suspect that you have tinnitus, make an appointment to see your doctor. This is especially important if the noises you hear are making you feel stressed or anxious or if they are accompanied by pain.

Additional Information

Leaflets about ear wax, otitis media and how to use ear drops and are also available from this pharmacy.

For more information about tinnitus, contact the British Tinnitus Association, Ground Floor, Unit 5 Acorn Business Park, Woodseats Close, Sheffield S8 0TB. Tel: 0800 018 0527. Email: info@tinnitus.org.uk. Website: www.tinnitus.org.uk. Alternatively you can contact The Royal National Institute For Deaf People (RNID), 19-23 Featherstone Street, London EC1Y 8SL. Tel: 0808 808 6666. Email: tinnitushelpline@rnid.org.uk. Website: www.rnid.org.uk.