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Last Updated on 7 August 2018

Hearing Aids and Tinnitus


Have you ever felt that strange sensation of ringing in your ears? What about a chirping, buzzing, whistling or hissing that isn’t really there? That strange sensation is called tinnitus.

The majority of Australians will experience temporary tinnitus at some point in their life, usually after exposure to loud noises. When it sticks around for months, or even years, it can cause the sufferer sleepless nights, concentration problems, depression, and anxiety.

It has been discovered that hearing loss can be a factor of tinnitus, so it may be helped by wearing hearing aids.

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What causes tinnitus?

Our ears are made up of three parts: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear.

The inner ear is the crucial part to be aware of when talking about tinnitus. The cochlea is a part of the inner ear. It is a small curled tube filled with fluid and lined with tiny hair cells.

Under normal circumstances, we hear when these tiny hair cells receive information from small bundles of fibres called stereocilia, which respond to vibrations from sound waves entering the ear.

The hair cells then translate vibrations into electrical impulses which are carried to the brain by sensory nerves. The nerves send unique signals for each sound as high-frequency and low-frequency sounds affect the hair cells in different ways. This is how sounds are distinguished from one another.

In tinnitus sufferers, there is some breakdown in this process which results in the perception of sound when there is no external noise actually present.

There isn’t one scientific answer as to why.

One hypothesis is that the hair cells are damaged and continuously switched to the “on” position, so the brain thinks it is receiving sounds that it is not. Another is that the noise filtering system in the brain isn’t working. This system stops you from hearing noises that are made by your central nervous system functioning, so the pulsing in your ears may be the sounds of your neurons firing.

Tinnitus can also indicate a tumour (usually only one ear is affected in this case), or appear as part of Ménière’s disease, otosclerosis (a disorder that causes progressive deafness), or problems with the temporomandibular joint that connects the jaw to the skull.

While the specific mechanism causing tinnitus is unclear, researchers have established that it has a high correlation with hearing loss. As hearing loss is often a gradual process, it can go undetected, and people are often surprised to learn that it can be the cause of their tinnitus.

The frequency of a person’s tinnitus tends to be of, or around, the same frequency where there is the most hearing loss. So high pitch tinnitus is likely to represent hearing loss of higher frequency sounds.

Construction workers, veterans, and musicians are at a higher risk of experiencing tinnitus compared to the general population. Exposure to loud noises, especially over long periods of time, puts a person more at risk.

Even though hearing loss is a frequent factor, some people with normal hearing may also experience tinnitus.

Types of Tinnitus

Subjective – This is the most common type, and it is classed as a sound that only the sufferer can hear.

Objective – This is quite rare as the sound can also be heard by someone else (usually a doctor), and tends to be a sign that something is wrong with the vascular system.

Causes of tinnitus

  • Auditory damage – leading causes are from repeated exposure to loud noise and age
  • Neurological damage
  • Head trauma
  • Ear wax buildup
  • Ménière’s disease
  • Low blood pressure
  • High blood pressure
  • Side effects of certain medications
  • Tumour

Treatments for Tinnitus

Masking – listening to any sound that distracts you or masks over the sound that you hear. One common way that you can do this is by using something like a fan or a white noise generator to reduce your focus on the tinnitus.

Habituation – This is essentially getting your brain to accept the tinnitus without applying negative emotions to it. Counselling may help as it can highlight strategies to reduce stress and bring relief through acceptance.

The tinnitus will still be there, but your limbic system (the part of your brain that is responsible for creating emotional responses) will no longer generate stress when acknowledging it.

Stress relief – While stress does not directly cause tinnitus, a correlation between high stress and more extreme tinnitus has been found in some cases. When a person is under high stress the perceived level of the tinnitus can be louder. Therefore, reducing stress can reduce the impact of tinnitus.

Hearing loss can be a form of stress as it makes your brain work harder to decipher sounds around you, this brings us onto using hearing aids as a treatment.

Hearing Aids – The reason hearing aids work well to relieve tinnitus is because they enable the wearer to hear sounds again at frequencies that were previously inaudible due to hearing loss. Lacking the ability to hear certain frequencies naturally anymore, the brain may create a ‘phantom’ signal to compensate. When sounds at these frequencies are able to be re-incorporated after a hearing aid is fitted, the artificial signals may cease.

Around 60 percent of individuals who wear hearing aids because of tinnitus experience relief.

There are two other ways that hearing aids can help with tinnitus.

Firstly they can mask over the tinnitus; lots of hearing aids on the market today have hearing aid maskers built into them. Your audiologist can program these sounds to a level that is comfortable for you but is enough to distract you from the constant noise in your ears. You can also incorporate relaxing sounds, such as waves or birds chirping if you wish.

Secondly, hearing aids take away the pressure and struggle of listening as they amplify the sounds you want to hear. They divert attention from the tinnitus by helping you to hear the sounds around you with ease.

If you have to live with the constant hum of tinnitus, being able to receive speech and music louder than this can be a blessing. As a result, the wearer may feel less personal frustration and social isolation.

To reduce most tinnitus associated with hearing loss, it is essential to have well fitted and good quality aids. With the introduction of digital hearing aids comes a more tailored approach to each person’s hearing loss. This has increased the impact hearing aids can have for tinnitus sufferers. In addition, some studies show that using a pair of hearing aids (one on each ear) has proven to be more beneficial than using only one.

The first step to identifying if hearing aids will benefit you and provide relief from tinnitus is to take a hearing test. Speaking to an audiologist can help you develop a plan that will suit your lifestyles and needs.

During a tinnitus hearing assessment, an audiologist will try to identify the exact pitch, frequency and volume of your tinnitus. This is done by listening to different sounds until you can hear a sound that is very similar to your tinnitus. By knowing this information, the audiologist can then recommend treatment options.

Click here to book a free hearing test now.

It usually takes just a few weeks to adapt to hearing aids and to get re-accustomed to normal levels of sound. Once this period of adjustment is over, many people become less aware of their tinnitus and more aware of the sounds around them.

 


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