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What is tinnitus?

Dr Tom Micklewright photo

Created: 5 February, 2019

Updated: 7 February, 2019


Tinnitus, as defined by the British Tinnitus Association, is “the sensation of hearing a sound in the absence of any external sound”. The actual sound and volume of tinnitus varies from person to person, the most common reported sound being one of ringing, though reports of buzzing, hissing, throbbing or even singing are also synonymous with the condition. Tinnitus can also only be heard in one ear, both ears, or even from a non-specific area in the middle of the head.

Around one in ten adults are affected by tinnitus in the UK, though it is reported in at any age – with some cases occurring in childhood. This raises the question of what causes tinnitus, a question which has, unfortunately, remained unanswered – though we do know that it is not a disease or even an illness. Instead, it is most commonly associated with hearing loss, be it as a result of ageing or prolonged exposure to loud noises. Ménière's disease, diabetes, thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis, anxiety and depression are also linked with tinnitus, as are certain medications.


What does tinnitus sound like?

Although tinnitus is generally not the precursor to a more serious condition, and can improve over time, it is a particularly tough condition to describe to people that don’t already suffer with it. Videos like the one below from the support forum, Tinnitus Talk, recreate the various forms of tinnitus that several people experience, as does the British Tinnitus Association recording below it, dating back to the 1970s.


Did you know that this week is Tinnitus Awareness Week? We think it’s time to understand what tinnitus really sounds like. So in that spirit, unmute your speakers and listen up 👂

Posted by Push Doctor on Tuesday, 5 February 2019


How can I stop tinnitus?

There is no definitive cure for tinnitus as of yet, however there are several steps that can alleviate your symptoms, some of which are accessible through a doctor, others which can be taken in your own time:

1. Sound therapy

Tinnitus retraining therapy is a form of habituation therapy made up of two elements, directive counselling and sound therapy. In directive counselling, the therapist plays an active role in a patient’s decision making, offering advice and guidance to aid, in this case, the management of tinnitus. Sound therapy, however, involves the use of distracting background noise to reduce an individual’s awareness of tinnitus. Patients undergoing tinnitus retraining therapy have reported “significant improvements in tinnitus impact”, with a “lasting therapeutic benefit [being] evident at 18 months”. A doctor can grant access to therapy of this kind.

2. Tinnitus relief apps

There are a number of apps on both the App Store and Google Play Store, the majority of which are free and well worth trying – not least because they could provide tinnitus relief at the exact moment you need it, entirely on your terms. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary on the apps that you find, though Beltone Tinnitus Calmer is well reviewed on both iOS and Android, as is ReSound Tinnitus Relief, available on iOS and Android. Whichever app you find works for you, tinnitus relief is a road well travelled on both platforms, and there are a wealth of reviews available on each written by other tinnitus sufferers to point you in the right direction.

3. Exercise

In a similar vein to the above suggestions, exercise can make it easier to ignore tinnitus and better cope with the sounds of tinnitus when they are in evidence. Some prefer to exercise in quieter spaces when noisier environments are overwhelming, while others prefer to exercise in noisy environments specifically because they are intrusive, masking the sounds of tinnitus when it strikes.

4. Support groups

While by no means a measure that alleviates symptoms in the strictest sense, joining a tinnitus support group will put you in direct contact with people that share your frustrations, and may well have their own ideas of what has and hasn’t worked for them in the past. At the very least, you will gain a broader knowledge of tinnitus based on first-hand experiences of the symptoms. This is no replacement for speaking to a doctor, of course, but support groups provide invaluable comfort and insight outside of a consultation context. For readers in the UK, the British Tinnitus Association maintains a directory to help you find the group nearest to you.

Topics: Health and Wellbeing, Expert health advice

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