Affects 1 in 10
At any point in time around 10% of the population experience tinnitus. Both sexes are equally affected and although tinnitus is more common in the elderly it can occur at any age, including childhood. The perceived sound can have virtually any quality – ringing, whistling and buzzing are common – but more complex sounds can also be described.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is an abnormal noise (or noises) that you can hear. However, the noise does not come from outside your ear. Some of the noises that people can hear include: ringing, buzzing, whistles, roaring, humming, machine type noises, etc. Sometimes the noise pulsates at the same rate as your pulse. Tinnitus can be either constant or come and go. It can vary in loudness and character from time to time. You can hear the noise or noises in one ear, in both ears, or it may be difficult to pinpoint where the noise seems to come from.
The noise is often more prominent when you are in a quiet place as there is less background noise to distract you from the Tinnitus. For example, when you are in bed and trying to get to sleep. It may also be more noticeable when you are tired. Some people with tinnitus are also more sensitive to normal everyday sounds. For example, some people with tinnitus find that a radio or TV is painfully loud when it is at a normal volume for most people.
Most tinnitus is mild
It is relatively rare for it to develop into a chronic problem of life-altering severity. The natural history of tinnitus in most patients is of an acute phase of distress when the problem begins, followed by improvement over time. But for a minority of patients the distress is ongoing and very significant, and they will require specialist support.
Tinnitus is more common in people with hearing loss
Tinnitus prevalence is greater amongst people with hearing impairment but the severity of the tinnitus correlates poorly with the degree of hearing loss. It is also quite possible to have tinnitus with a completely normal pure tone audiogram.
Hearing aids are helpful if there is associated hearing loss
Straining to listen can allow tinnitus to emerge or, if already present, to worsen. Correcting any hearing loss reduces listening effort and generally reduces the level of the tinnitus. Hearing aids are useful even if the hearing loss is relatively mild and at a level where aids would not normally be considered. Some modern hearing aids have sound therapy devices incorporated within the aid specifically for tinnitus patients. Department of Health guidelines have emphasised the value of audiometry in a tinnitus consultation, and this is the definitive basis for decisions about hearing aid candidacy. If in doubt, refer for an audiological opinion. In our view, all people who describe tinnitus deserve an audiological assessment. Decisions on when to start using a hearing aid and what sort to use are up to the individual patient and audiologist.