Tinnitus: what it is, how Sound Machines help

Tinnitus and its causes

Tinnitus (taken from the Latin for “ringing”) is the perception of sound, when there is no sound coming from anywhere in the person's surroundings. This noise can be heard in one, or both ears, or it can give the impression that it is coming from the middle of the head. At other times it's hard to identify where the sound seems to be coming from. The noises heard can vary greatly between people and even for the same person at different times. It can be high or low pitched. It may be a single tone or have multiple elements. Contrary to common belief, tinnitus is actually not a disease or an illness. Instead, it is a symptom, generated from within a person's own hearing pathways – and yet this does not necessarily mean that there is any disease of the ears.

A relatively small sub-group of tinnitus diagnoses are due to temperomandibular Joint pain (often shortened to TMJ or TMD). In such cases, the tinnitus-like symptoms arise from chronic tension in muscles around the jaw. However, for the vast majority of tinnitus cases the precise cause is still not fully known or understood, but it is important to remember that tinnitus is rarely an indication of a serious disorder. Having said this, it is best to consult your doctor if you think you may have tinnitus, in case there is something treatable causing it, and which might easily be put to rights.

Who gets tinnitus?

The belief that tinnitus is confined to the elderly is widely held, but studies have found that it occurs at any age, even in quite young children. Tinnitus is particular common following exposure to loud noise; however, it is unusual for it to be a major problem. A mild degree of tinnitus is common – around 10 per cent of the population have it all the time and, in about one per cent of adults, this may affect the quality of their life.

What's it like living with tinnitus?

Well, one difficulty is that the noises may seem worse if you are anxious or stressed – and of course, it's hard to feel anxious or stressed if that ringing in your ears does not let-up on you. At the outset, particularly if tinnitus starts quite suddenly, people may, quite naturally feel frightened and concerned. Particularly if, like most new sufferers, they know little about the problem. It can affect concentration and may disturb sleep. The often constant noise can lead people into feeling short-fused and liable to feelings of anger and frustration, particularly if people around you seem not to understand what your experiencing. Talking can help, if only because it might help stop you from feeling that your all alone with your problem. The other great help is to fins out as much as you can about the condition. Realising how common tinnitus is, and that you're not alone, can be surprisingly comforting to know.

Many people with tinnitus find that, over time, they develop their own strategies to limit its impact on their lives. For example, many have noticed that the noise becomes less noticeable when they're doing something. Keeping your mind occupied also helps, but it's also important not to overdo things and stress yourself. If the noises seem louder at quiet times, particularly during the night, it may help to have soothing music or some other environmental or natural sound playing quietly in the background.

Managing Tinnitus – developing habituation

There is a common belief that nothing can be done to help the tinnitus patient, but this is not the case. It is true that surgical intervention for tinnitus is only very rarely appropriate and that there is no medication available which can abolish or reduce the presence of tinnitus. But treatments aimed at lessening the distress associated with tinnitus can be incredibly effective at allowing sufferers to get on with their lives. This is not least because often, the ability to carry on as normal, is the best way of “habituating” or getting so used to the problem, so that you can begin to exercise some control over its impact on your life.

The role of Sound Machines in managing Tinnitus

Sound Machines are used by many people with tinnitus to assist them in bringing about “habituation” to the noise – and so lead to a reduction of the disturbance which the noise causes to their lives. Sound Machines or “sound enrichment devices” as they are usually referred to by health professionals, often form an integral part of clinical treatment. Sound enrichment devices help because they assist a person to become less aware of the tinnitus noise. They do this by making use of the brain's natural sound filtering mechanism, helping the person to acclimatise to the tinnitus noise and improving their ability to ignore it.

How Sound Machines work

The sounds used by Sound Machines to combat tinnitus are low level and non-intrusive. Perhaps surprisingly, it is also important that the sound they make is low enough that you can still hear the tinnitus noise over them. This is because the objective in using a sound enrichment device is not to “drown-out” the tinnitus noise. Instead, it is to present the brain with an alternative sound, which it can selectively begin to tune into, and filter-out the old tinnitus noise in order to do so. Over time, the brain's focusing on the new sound, leads it to “habituate” to the tinnitus noise – which in practical terms means that the brain gets better and better at ignoring the tinnitus, helping to produce relief from the tinnitus noise. Sound enrichment is particularly useful for situations where the tinnitus becomes more intrusive, for example during quiet activities like reading, when going to bed or on waking-up in the morning – and here is the reason why:

Everyone's brain (whether they have tinnitus or not) naturally becomes more sensitive in quiet situations. This is in order to detect even the faintest of sounds. This natural, protective phenomenon is the reason why many people report that their houses seem to get “noisier” at night. In truth, it's not the houses that change at night, but our brains do – becoming more sensitive in response to the quietness and so able to pick-up the slightest sound. Unfortunately, for people with tinnitus, this normal process can act against them, by increasing their awareness of the tinnitus alongside all the other sounds going-on around them, and this is when Sound Machines can be at their most effective.

Why use a Sound Machine when I can just turn on the radio?

On the face of it, there seem to be no reasons why you can't just turn on the radio at a low volume to achieve the same effect as using a Sound Machine. People have also tried using natural environmental sounds, such as soothing recordings of the sea, falling rain, babbling brooks or even the sound of a desktop fan. However, the results have usually proved unsatisfactory. This is because in order to achieve the desired habituation effect, the brain must be given a constant, low level sound to help draw its focus away from the tinnitus noise. Any variation in the sound, whether in it's quality or it's volume, will inhibit the habituation process from taking effect. Sound machines are designed to ensure a stable, constant and “always-on” sound stream, helping to draw the focus of the brain away from the tinnitus.

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