The sound of silence
It is estimated that around five million people in the UK suffer from tinnitus. This is a condition that causes ringing in the ears or head. The noise does not originate from an external source, ie it is not a normal sound you are hearing, but something that is inside the head. The noise level can range from a light buzzing to a constant roar of sound and it can have a devastating effect on your quality of life.
There has been a lot of research into tinnitus and recent thoughts are that it could be caused by the release of excessive amounts of the neurotransmitter “glutamate” by hair cells in the inner ear.
Normally glutamate plays a vital role in communication between nerve cells, making them more likely to send a signal onwards. However, when the cells are subjected to stress, perhaps by exposure to loud noise or to drugs that can damage hair cells, then they can over-produce glutamate, causing a negative effect which can destroy the original connections between the hair cells and the nerves.
These may then be replaced by the growth of new ones, but these new connections are slightly different to the original ones and can become over-active when glutamate is released. This over-activity causes the sound that is known as tinnitus.
Whatever the cause, tinnitus can be soul-destroying. Unfortunately there is no simple test a doctor can make at the moment to check tinnitus, so if you are suffering you need to go to your doctor armed with as much information as possible.
You will need to describe the noise you are hearing, is it high or low, is it in both ears, is it constant or does it come with a beat? You also need to pinpoint when it started and whether you have been exposed to loud noise, a head injury, or have suffered an illness or taken medication that could effect the problem.
Depending on the severity of tinnitus, the doctor will probably examine your ears for infection or a build up of wax, and then may suggest a number of next steps. These could include specialist tests with an ear, nose and throat specialist; a blood test to check your vitamin B12 and cholesterol levels, referral to an audiologist for hearing tests or even a referral for a brain scan – tinnitus is a symptom rather than a disease and while it is very rare for it to be associated with a significant problem, it is worth checking all aspects.
There are tinnitus clinics that can offer tinnitus therapy; there is a variety of medication that might help; and there are hearing aids that can help reduce tinnitus in many sufferers.
Deafness Research UK has recently been involved in Tinnitus Awareness Week and they are publishing a free information leaflet called Managing Tinnitus. Their contact details are on www.deafnessresearch.org.uk or call 020 7833 1733
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