N K Chauhan, 66, would hear a constant ringing sound in his ears. “When I first experienced it I thought that the sound was coming from outside and asked my wife if she could hear anything. But when she responded in negative about it, I got scared. The fact that only I was able to hear it scared me,” he says. Still, Chauhan didn’t think that this was some physiological problem, he took it more as a psychological one till he spoke to his brother who advised him to see an ENT specialist. “It simply astounded me that something that I was ignoring was a medical condition that required a doctor’s help,” says Chauhan.
Chauhan has a condition called Tinnitus in medical terms. Tinnitus is a very common problem; globally one in five people are affected by it. ENT specialists say Tinnitus is not a condition itself but a symptom of an underlying condition like age-related hearing loss, ear injury or a disorder in the circulatory system.
Though not a life-threatening condition, Tinnitus can significantly affect the quality of life. It can lead to anxiety, irritability, stress, depression, sleep problems, reduced concentration span, fatigue and memory problems.
What exactly is Tinnitus
“In simple terms Tinnitus means a sensation of hearing a sound when no external sound is present i.e. the perception of noise in the ears. It can be a temporary occurrence like the ringing sound one hears in the ears after cracker blasts on Diwali which goes after some time, or it can be permanent which remains always,” says Dr Atul Ahuja, senior ENT specialist with clinic at Greater Kailash in New Delhi.
The sound a Tinnitus patient hears could either be a constant ringing, buzzing, roaring, clicking or hissing. It can worsen with age, and in some people no medical treatment helps like in case of Chauhan. “It has been four years now since I first got affected, but I have learnt to live with it now,” says Chauhan.
The sound may vary in pitch and may be heard either in one or both the ears. It may be present all the time, or it may come and go.
The most common type of Tinnitus is Subjective Tinnitus, which means the sound can be heard only by the one affected. But in rare cases the sound can be heard even by the doctor examining the patient (Objective Tinnituts).
The most common cause of Tinnitus is inner ear cell damage. The other causes include injuries or conditions that affect the nerves in the ear or the hearing center in the brain. One may develop Tinnitus after an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or it may come without any apparent reason too. And in many cases the exact cause is never found.
Age-related hearing loss: For many people, hearing worsens with age, usually starting around age 60. Hearing loss can cause Tinnitus.
Exposure to loud noise: Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, also can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods.
People who work in factories, construction workers, musicians and soldiers are at high risk of developing Tinnitus as their surroundings are generally full of noise.
Earwax blockage: Earwax protects your ear canal by trapping dirt and slowing the growth of bacteria. But when too much earwax accumulates, it becomes too hard to wash away naturally causing hearing loss or irritation of the eardrum, and this can lead to Tinnitus.
Ear bone changes: Stiffening of the bones in the middle ear may affect hearing and cause Tinnitus.
Gender: Men are more likely to experience Tinnitus.
Smoking: Smokers have a higher risk of developing Tinnitus.
Cardiovascular problems: Conditions that affect blood flow like high blood pressure or narrowed arteries (atherosclerosis) can increase the risk of Tinnitus.
“There are many reasons behind the development of this condition, and the treatment depends upon the reason due to which Tinnitus has been caused. Mostly it is caused by infection or damage to the nerves in the ear, and while with medicine we can help reduce the severity of the condition, it is difficult to completely cure it,” says Dr Ahuja.
“People who are exposed to loud noises are more susceptible to Tinnitus, so the best thing would be to avoid loud noise. Also one must not constantly hear music through ear phones and headphones as it damages the nerves in the ear,” he says.
“Another important precaution is to NOT consume over-the-counter painkillers since randomly eating painkillers affects the nerves in the ear, as well as other body organs. One must always consult a doctor before eating any medicine, even a seemingly harmless asprin,” says Dr Ahuja