Tinnitus driving you crazy?

Tracey Sullivan Pharmacy Features Writer

The word “tinnitus’ comes from a Latin word ‘tinnire’ which means ‘to ring’. People who experience tinnitus hear a sound which is not related to any external source. While some people tolerate tinnitus well, in others it can trigger the fight-or-flight response as the brain perceives the sound to be important and dangerous.


Is the ringing in my ears permanent?
Yes, it might be. There are a wide range of causes for tinnitus, but not all result in permanent ringing. Impacted ear wax, a middle ear infection, perforated ear drum, or a side-effect to certain medications can all cause temporary tinnitus. Once these conditions are sorted, the tinnitus will likely go away.

In some instances, the tinnitus can be permanent. It often happens when there is hearing loss, after prolonged exposure to loud noise, after whiplash or a head injury and it can occur in some medical conditions such as Meniere’s Disease.

Other wide-ranging causes of tinnitus include aging, scuba diving, drinking excess alcohol and caffeine, diabetes, TMJ (temporomandibular joint) problems, high levels of stress, physical or emotional trauma, perimenopause and menopause.


What does tinnitus sound like?
Tinnitus has been described in many different ways – a ring, buzz, whistle, hum, hiss, or drone to name a few! The sound can be constant, intermittent or pulsing. It can feel like it is coming from inside the head or from a distance away. Some people may only notice their tinnitus in very quiet places or at night time. It can be in one or both ears.


What is making the noise?
Our bodies make noise all the time. These noises are called ‘somatic sounds’ and we don’t usually notice them because we are always listening to external sounds. If something blocks the external sound (like ear wax or fluid in the inner ear), our attention is drawn to the somatic sound.

With permanent tinnitus, the sound may be caused by damage to the delicate hair cells of the cochlea in the inner ear. These cells, when healthy, help to transform sound waves into electrical signals that travel via the auditory nerve to the brain. With damage to these cells, the brain doesn’t get the right sounds and neurons act abnormally to give the illusion of sound ie tinnitus. A bit like phantom limb pain in an amputee, the brain produces an abnormal sound to counteract the missing or decreased input.


The tinnitus is driving me nuts, what can I do to make it go away?
Some people react mildly to the development of tinnitus, others find it extremely intrusive. It can cause such significant distress for some that their quality of life decreases dramatically and suicidal ideation can occur. The sound can interfere with concentration and sleep, and is often associated with anxiety and depression, or can make these conditions worse.

Fortunately, much can be done to make tinnitus more manageable and less noticeable:

  • Sound therapy uses specific noises to promote habituation – where you eventually don’t notice the noise as much and your brain recognises the sound isn’t actually harmful to you.
  • Stress reduction and sleep hygiene are absolutely essential as stress, anxiety, fatigue and insomnia all worsen the condition.
  • A healthy diet and physical activity to improve your general health is important.
  • Treating insomnia, depression, anxiety or pain with medication and/or psychotherapy such as CBT can improve these conditions.
  • Jaw clenching, teeth grinding, prior injuries to the head or neck or neck muscle tension can make tinnitus more noticeable. Massage therapy and stretching can help relieve these issues.
  • Treat any underlying physical causes such as ear wax or infection.
  • Mask the sound by using background noise. A sound that is similar in pitch and character to the tinnitus sound can help. Fan and nature sounds can be better than TV, music or radio. Having the volume just quieter than the actual tinnitus sound allows habituation.
  • Get a hearing assessment with an audiologist if hearing loss is the suspected cause. Hearing aids can help to alleviate tinnitus.


If you think you may have tinnitus, seek help early as it can be a sign of other health problems. Get checked for any possible physical causes and rule out hearing loss. If chronic, tinnitus can become less noticeable and more manageable over time.

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