The misery of tinnitus - and how you can avoid it

Life can be miserable for sufferers of tinnitus
Life can be miserable for sufferers of tinnitus
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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If that ringing in your ears isn’t the doorbell, you could be one of the 4.7 million UK adults who suffer from tinnitus.

The condition is a noise in the head or the ears that has no external source. Although it’s often defined as a ringing, it can also be buzzing, whistling or even hearing a song in one or both ears, or in the middle of the head.

The British Tinnitus Association (BTA) is keen to highlight how many people are affected by the condition, and how distressing it can be. It has just held Tinnitus Awareness Week.

David Stockdale, chief executive of the BTA, says that around 10 per cent of UK adults suffer from permanent tinnitus, which can vary greatly in its severity.

While some sufferers can live with tinnitus without much problem, others are significantly affected, and Stockdale explains: ‘Tinnitus is a very common condition, but it’s unique to everyone.

‘Some find it’s constant and never leaves them, for others it’s worse at certain times, and others find it gets worse at times of stress. It can be very intrusive and distressing.’

Figures from the Royal National Institute for the Deaf show that tinnitus has a ‘severe effect’ on the quality of life of 470,000 UK adults, while 2.3 million sufferers find it ‘severely to moderately’ annoying.

That may be partly because 2.3 million adults find tinnitus makes it difficult to sleep.

While the condition can affect people of any age, it has a strong association with age-related hearing loss, and many sufferers are elderly. Depression and anxiety can also be tinnitus triggers, as can other hearing conditions like Meniere’s disease and hyperacusis.

Although many people with tinnitus are elderly, exposure to loud music is also linked to the condition, and as a result it affects significant numbers of young people too.

This particular tinnitus trigger has been one of the main focuses of Tinnitus Awareness Week.

‘We get a lot of people ringing up because they’re concerned after having been to a loud concert or nightclub,’ says Stockdale.

‘We also get a lot of DJs ringing to ask how to protect their hearing to make sure their tinnitus doesn’t get any worse.’

The BTA’s ambassador is DJ and tinnitus sufferer Eddy Temple-Morris.

He says: ‘Blasting my eardrums with loud music was what I lived for for many years, and the ringing in my ears afterwards – which I often thought of as a sign of a brilliant night – was always something that went away after a day or so.

‘But about 10 years ago, the high-pitched tone in my ears failed to go away. It became a permanent noise and one which I later learned was tinnitus.’

Temple-Morris says it’s sometimes hard to cope with the noise in his ears, and he knows countless DJs, musicians and music lovers who are also affected by tinnitus as a result of exposure to loud music.

‘While we are all now aware of the dangers and take precautions, such as using specialist earplugs, ultimately we’re resigned to a life with tinnitus.

‘So are many thousands of others. It’s a travesty to think that so many of these cases could have been prevented through better tinnitus awareness.’

Stockdale of the BTA says most people have had tinnitus briefly at some point, but medical advice should be sought when it lasts for several days.

‘It’s often more useful not to focus on trying to understand the cause, but to look at trying to manage it, usually with medical help,’ he stresses.

‘A lot of managing tinnitus is getting to the stage where you’re able to forget about it, where the brain understands it’s not an important auditory signal.’

If tests confirm there’s no underlying cause for tinnitus, various treatments may be suggested, dependent on the triggers. Treatments include sound therapy (introducing environmental noise either through a hearing aid or a sound machine), a hearing aid, counselling such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or relaxation techniques.

‘Unfortunately, the medical profession often gives the impression that people just have to learn to live with tinnitus,’ says Stockdale.