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The Canadian Academy of Audiology says that for 360,000 Canadians, tinnitus is a nuisance, a plague that's anything but music to their ears. Many people hear buzzing after a loud concert or an airplane flight, but the noise typically disappears after a few hours. For tinnitus sufferers, the sound isn't so easy to escape.
What is tinnitus?
According to Glynnis Tidball, a registered audiologist in the Tinnitus Clinic at Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital, tinnitus is a frustrating buzzing, ringing, clicking or hissing sound heard in one or both ears. The racket is noticed despite the absence of external noise and can be a high or low pitch, intermittent or constant. For 150,000 Canadians, the sound is so disturbing that it disrupts the quality of daily living and interferes with sleep and concentration.
"Tinnitus is generated by the background hum of the brain," says Tidball. "Your brain is made up of millions of tiny fibres called neurons, which are sending signals to and from the rest of the body. At rest, those neurons have a little background activity. With tinnitus, that background activity has become elevated, and the brain mistakes that activity for sound."
There are two types of tinnitus: subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus -- the most common type -- only you can hear. Objective tinnitus, on the other hand, can be generated by body structure, blood flow or muscle contractions within the head and can be heard by a doctor with a stethoscope. Both forms of tinnitus can be accompanied by pressure in the ears and dizziness.
Tinnitus isn't a disease. It's actually a symptom of an underlying condition, such as hearing loss, a circulatory system problem or ear injury. Tinnitus on its own does not cause hearing loss.
What are the causes?
Tinnitus is often caused by a temporary or permanent loss of hearing. "Most people with tinnitus have some form of hearing loss whether they recognize it or not," says Tidball.
Temporary hearing loss and the tinnitus that it creates can sometimes be blamed on an earwax blockage within the ear canal, exposure to loud noise, a ruptured eardrum, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) or jaw disorders, or an injury to the head or neck. If these causes of temporary hearing loss are fixed, the tinnitus often goes away, too.
A permanent decrease in hearing is often the result of hearing loss (either age related or from continual exposure to excessive noise), cardiovascular disorders that affect blood flow within the head or Ménière's disease, a rare affliction characterized by vertigo, nausea and hearing difficulties. In these situations, tinnitus is often present.
"Some people have hearing loss all their lives, and it does seem to predispose people to developing tinnitus," explains Tidball. "Any form of ear disease or dysfunction can be related to tinnitus onset."
Who's most at risk?
Older adults and people who work or spend a lot of time in noisy environments such as factories and concert halls are more likely to develop hearing loss and its frequent sidekick, tinnitus. Smokers may also face an elevated risk. Cigarettes can drastically decrease cardiovascular health, which is a main force behind hearing loss and the tinnitus that can accompany it.
If you think that you have tinnitus, it's important to mention it to your doctor. "A health-care provider can recommend where the nearest tinnitus expert is located," says Tidball. "Some clinics offer hearing tests for free or they charge $50 -- it's not a huge amount."
How can it be treated?
Currently there is no cure for tinnitus, but there are several ways that it can be managed.
"Amplification devices, such as hearing aids, can suppress tinnitus or take the edge off," says Tidball. "If someone is having sleeping difficulties, there are smartphone apps that play background sounds, like ocean waves, through the night that can help [mask the tinnitus]."
Attending information sessions with an audiologist is also beneficial. Stress and anxiety brought on by the situation can ramp up tinnitus symptoms, so discussing your therapy can make a huge difference in your outlook and how well you cope.
Tidball also gives top marks to two self-help books that offer accurate and positive information: Tinnitus Treatment Toolbox (Trafford Publishing, 2010) by J.L. Mayes and Living with Tinnitus and Hyperacusis (Sheldon, 2010) co-authored by Dr. Laurence McKenna, Dr. David Baguley and Dr. Don McFerran. Knowing the ins and outs of the condition can make it much easier to manage.
Can tinnitus be prevented?
Yes, it can. By protecting your hearing you can lower your chances of developing tinnitus. If you work in a noisy environment or attend lots of rock concerts, wear earplugs. You'll still be able to hear, but the excessive ranges of sound that can cause hearing loss will be eliminated.
Turn down the volume on your personal MP3 player to the 50 to 60 per cent mark and keep your cardiovascular system healthy with regular exercise, a nutritious diet and by avoiding cigarettes. By safeguarding your hearing you should be able to steer clear of the frustrations associated with tinnitus.