Ringing in Ears

Coping with Persistent Ringing in the Ears and its Causes

It seems more than likely that almost everyone, regardless of their age, or whether their hearing may be normal or impaired will have experienced the sensation described as ringing in the ears at some time during the course of their lifetime, and probably on more than one occasion. After all, it only takes a sufficiently loud noise like a fire cracker, a gunshot, or the amplified beat of a bass guitar to trigger this effect in someone who is close enough to such an event. Other causes may be the accumulation of excess wax in the outer ear or the obstruction of the Eustachian tubes.

The sensation can, to say the least, be annoying and can even become a distraction. It is therefore fortunate that, in these instances, it is a purely temporary phenomenon that will normally tend to persist for no longer than a day or two at the most. However, imagine what it might be like to be one of the more than 50 million individuals in the United States alone, for whom these phantom noises are a permanent phenomenon that intrude upon every minute of their lives, both day and night.

Known as tinnitus, it is not actually an illness, but rather a symptom, and one that is a frequent accompaniment to hearing loss. Incidentally, in addition to causing a temporary ringing in the ears, today, loud noise has also become the most common cause of deafness worldwide. In this case, the loss of hearing is not due to an isolated event, with time to recover, but to the cumulative effect of repeated and prolonged exposure to loud noises. This results in widespread damage to the delicate, specialised sensory cells lining the cochlea in the middle ear. Since the body cannot replace them, their loss limits the generation of the nerve impulses normally relayed to the auditory centres in the brain, where they are interpreted as speech and other sounds.

The mechanism behind the phantom sounds which, incidentally, can differ between subjects and range from buzzing, clicking, crackling and whooshing, to sounds that appear to resemble music or voices, also appears to stem from damage to those specialised hair cells within the cochlea. The current thinking is that the release of free radicals from the damaged cells leads to the formation of glutamate, a chemical that is known to have an effect on those regions of the brain responsible for the interpretation of sound. The inappropriate release of this chemical therefore appears to provide a feasible explanation for the equally inappropriate buzzing, clicking or ringing sensation in the ears.

Although, as stated earlier, the condition is regarded as a symptom and not an illness, to date, doctors have found no way to eliminate, or if you prefer, to cure tinnitus. Instead, current treatments focus on ways in which to limit its intensity, and to assist its sufferers with managing the condition more effectively, so that their everyday lifestyle will be less affected. Untreated, its effects can be extremely debilitating, often leading to persistent insomnia, depression and stress that can actually intensify the sounds. Those affected frequently find it difficult to concentrate and in some cases, may be unable to cope with a job.

Given the possible chemical origins of tinnitus, it is not surprising that efforts to control it include the use of antioxidants to inhibit free radicals, and selected micronutrients known to promote hearing health and boost the immune system. One such preparation is BioArmor Hearing Health, available from Ear Institute clinics throughout South Africa. Counselling, which may include sleep therapy, relaxation training and behavioural therapy, is also able to produce substantial improvements in a subject’s ability to manage his or her condition.

While sometimes, a hearing aid may be enough to limit that annoying ringing in the ears, mental attitude can also play an important role in managing the condition. This is perhaps best illustrated by some of the other sound enrichment technology applied for this purpose. Intended not to eliminate the intrusive sounds, but to help tinnitus suffers ignore them, smartphone apps and noise generators fitted to hearing aids can provide soothing music, natural relaxing sounds and white noise that all serve to distract the subject from the incessant inner noises responsible for their stress. Our specialised hearing healthcare professionals at Ear Institute are uniquely qualified to support the victims of tinnitus in South Africa.
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