What is tinnitus and how can it impact your health?

Roughly one in three people will experience tinnitus at some point in their lives.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

According to research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 15% of the American population (over 50 million people) experience some form of tinnitus. While in the UK over 7 million people are impacted by the condition, according to the British Tinnitus Association

But what is tinnitus, how can it impact a person's wellbeing and what can they do to manage their symptoms? Here's everything you need to know about the condition. 

What is tinnitus?

Nic Wray, from the BTA (British Tinnitus Association), told w&h, "Tinnitus is the perception of noise in the ear/head with no matching external sound. It’s often called ‘ringing in the ears’ but people can experience any sound – buzzing, hissing and whining noises are common."

The noises may be continuous, but for some, they come and go, and people can experience it in either ear, or in both ears.

The noise can even be as as loud as a jet engine, or a dentist's drill - so it's no surprise that the persistent sounds can prove incredibly challenging to deal with. "Some people’s tinnitus is very quiet and in the background, for others it is very loud – and for some, it varies from day to day, " Nic said.

Just about everyone can experience tinnitus - it doesn't affect just one age or social group.

woman placing hands on ears

How can tinnitus impact your mental health?

The American Tinnitus Association defines tinnitus as a "serious health condition that can negatively affect a patient’s quality of life". According to the ATA, around 20 million Americans have chronic tinnitus, while 2 million suffer extreme and debilitating cases. 

It's no wonder the condition can affect a person's mental health and wellbeing. In the UK, the BTA conducted research that showed just how severely the condition can impact a person's wellbeing, and often it comes down to its persistent and ever-present nature.

Nic explained, "Tinnitus can be unrelenting. It can be very difficult to move your attention away from the noises. The noises are not always pleasant in tone or quality. These combine to increase the person’s stress arousal response, which can trigger feelings of anxiety, mood changes and sleep disturbance."

Woman pressing fingers to ears

Hayley Smith, founder and owner of PR company Boxed Out PR, has tinnitus, as a result of suffering from meningitis a few years ago.

For her, the daily, high-pitched ringing she experiences can be debilitating. "The best way to describe the sound is someone shrieking in my ear. Sometimes I don't notice it, but other times it is deafening, and I can't hear over it."

Some days, the impact on Hayley's mental health is unbearable. "The tinnitus is worsened when I have high anxiety, and I have become really sensitive to loud noises including motorbikes and police sirens. It can sometimes leave me cowering in the street," she told w&h.

"In general, it makes me really anxious, and I can get very irritated and short tempered when it's at it's worse," Hayley continued. "It can make me feel trapped and claustrophobic.

"Most of the time, it's completely liveable - but there are days where it really affects me. There are times where it completely takes over. I can find myself sitting for ages just listening to it, not really registering anything else."

Causes of tinnitus: why does it happen?

What causes tinnitus is unclear - however, it's generally thought that it occurs as a result of some kind of physical or mental change, rather than existing as a condition of its own.

The ATA describes most cases of tinnitus as being a result of a "sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system". This can be caused by a number of different health disorders, such as hearing loss or head and neck trauma. But, it's important you see your doctor who can help you find the root cause of your tinnitus, and therefore the correct treatment.

Tinnitus treatment: how can you ease the symptoms?

As tinnitus usually occurs because of an underlying cause, it's important to speak with your doctor to determine the root of the problem first. Then, there are a number of ways you can manage and alleviate some of your symptoms. 

These include looking at your general wellbeing, assessing your diet and exercise routine to help you feel good. 

If the tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, a hearing aid like the the Olive Pro by Olive Union could help. It's the first FDA-registered smart hearing aid that optimizes hearing and delivers hi-fidelity sound. The Olive Pro has been designed to be seen and not hidden like traditional hearing aids, and are actually a stylish 2-in-1 combo of hearing aids & Bluetooth earbuds. 

Other treatments for tinnitus include sound therapies and mental health therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, where a mental health professional can help a patient manage their reactions to tinnitus. 

For more information and support, visit the ATA website.

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