What exactly is the Distressing Condition Known as Tinnitus?

Anyone who may have, during the course of a rugby match or boxing bout, experienced a blow to the head, in addition to the temporary dizziness and confusion, may well have experienced a ringing sound in the ears. Fortunately, in light of the high frequency of such mishaps, its effects on these casualties are usually quite temporary. However, for millions of sufferers worldwide, the sensation may be far more protracted and even lifelong. So what is this condition referred to as tinnitus?

Perhaps the first observation that should be made is that the manifestations of this condition are certainly not limited to the ringing sensation described earlier. Patients have reported experiencing a whole variety of auditory sensations and that can be seen to differ, not just in their nature, but also in their intensity. While some sufferers may experience a rather faint sound that is only obvious during quiet times, others can be plagued by noises that are so loud that they can be heard even above high levels of background noise. Victims of the disorder have mentioned hearing whistling sounds, buzzing, crackling, ticking, whooshing and even sounds that appear to resemble music and human voices.

To those who have no personal experience of the condition, these effects may seem like a minor inconvenience and even mildly amusing. To the victims, however, condemned to suffer these effects during every waking moment, they are a source of intense distress that may leave many of them exhausted and, in some cases, in a state of clinical depression during which they may be almost incapable of action or rational thought.

What then is responsible for tinnitus? This is a question to which there is no single answer and, in certain cases, there may be no discernible cause at all, prompting physicians to label this type of occurrence as idiopathic. Collectively, the various manifestations of this condition will fall into one of two main groups. Those cases in which a practitioner is actually able to hear the offending sounds during an examination are referred to as objective while those in which only the patient can detect the sounds are classified, appropriately, as subjective.

One example of the former can often be attributed to spasms that occur in the small muscles located in the inner ear. These spasms, in turn, will often give rise to various clicking sounds that are clearly audible to both the patient and to the examining clinician. In other cases, the sound of blood pulsing through arteries in the region may be experienced by both but although the idea may sound alarming, only quite rarely is it actually a sign of any serious underlying pathology.

In examining the subjective forms of this disorder, it may not come as too much of a surprise to learn that its most common causative factors are also those that are most often implicated as being responsible for various forms of hearing loss and deafness. These include ear infections, loud noises and the side effects of various analgesics, anti-inflammatory drugs plus a wide range of antibiotics.

At the various Ear Institute branches and the satellite clinics around South Africa, understanding what tinnitus is and discerning its causes is now helping many sufferers to receive some much-needed relief from the disorder.

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