IN SHORT: TINNITUS
- Tinnitus arises from hearing damage after noise exposure, ear infections, long-term depression, etc.
- 10% of children between 9 and 12 suffer from it
- Symptom cannot be treated, but the burden can be.
- You can prevent it by using hearing protection and coping with stress.
Tinnitus is a symptom which causes the patient to hear a sound that is not present in the environment. This can manifest itself as a ringing sound, a beeping sound, a test sound, the sound of crickets ... Many people fear that tinnitus is inevitably associated with hearing loss and even deafness later in life, and also believe that there is nothing that can be done about it. But this is not true, according to Laure Jacquemin, clinical audiologist and post-doc researcher on tinnitus.
What is tinnitus?
‘When you have tinnitus, the cilia in the inner ear are damaged and they can only recover to a limited extent’, Jacquemin explains. ‘Our brain notices that it gets less input from the ear and therefore starts working harder. As a result, we hear sounds that are not there – a kind of overreaction. This has little impact for some people, but others suffer from sleep problems, anxiety symptoms, negative thoughts and so on.’
Causes of tinnitus
Tinnitus can result from hearing damage after noise exposure, and in children sometimes from ear infections. There is also age-related hearing loss. ‘People aged 50–60 years start to lose some hearing due to wear and tear’, Jacquemin says. ‘But we also see tinnitus in people with long-term depression, or neck and jaw problems. So the origins are more complex than merely due to noise trauma.’
Some people experience sleep problems, anxiety symptoms and negative thoughts due to tinnitus.
Treatment for tinnitus
‘If we consider medical cures – treating tinnitus with medication or surgery – the remedies are limited’, Jacquemin knows. ‘Sometimes you can counteract acute hearing loss with medication, but for tinnitus as a symptom, there is no medicinal treatment. Our therapy with electrical stimulation also produced limited effects. But there are treatments for the burden of tinnitus, including tinnitus retraining therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy. You learn to see tinnitus as a neutral experience rather than a negative dangerous situation that forces the body into alarm mode.’
Tinnitus therapy for children
Since the beginning of this year, children who suffer from tinnitus can also go to the Antwerp University Hospital (UZA) for tinnitus therapy: ‘We have been offering this form of tinnitus therapy for adults for about a decade’, Jacquemin says. ‘We start with a medical check-up and then a group session as a first step, to educate people about tinnitus and reassure them that it is a trivial symptom that does not cause hearing damage or deafness, and most importantly: that does not get worse. Only 1 in 4 adults still needs further treatment after that group session, and then retraining therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy is started. For children, we immediately opt for individual therapy adapted to the child’s age. Recent research by UZA and UAntwerp shows that 10% of children aged between 9 and 12 suffer from tinnitus. That's a lot.’
Gone for good?
‘Tinnitus will always be somewhere in your brain, and if you focus on it, you might be able to find it again’, Jacquemin says, ‘but in the long run, you barely hear it. We can treat the impact very well.’
By taking some measures, you can try to prevent tinnitus:
- Take care of your hearing and don’t spend too much time in loud environments;
- Use hearing protection;
- Learn to cope with stress. Less stress is less tinnitus.
In short, choose a healthy lifestyle to take care of your ears and to have a healthy mind.