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What’s That Sound In My Head?

Media Release
18th August 2003

What’s That Sound In My Head?

Two out of every 100 New Zealanders suffer from tinnitus so severe it affects their daily life, with a further 6 – 17% suffering from problematic tinnitus.

Anyone at any age can be affected by tinnitus. Children grow up with it, young people may develop it after damaging their hearing and 40% of New Zealanders over the age of 60 have got it. Couple this with the fact that the baby boomers are now reaching their 60’s and it becomes clear that the number of New Zealanders suffering from tinnitus is growing every day.

Tinnitus is the name given to sounds - such as ringing, crackling and buzzing– that are present in some people’s ears but do not come from an outside source. It can range from almost unnoticeable ringing in one ear to extremely loud noises in both ears.

The condition can be extremely unpleasant and people with tinnitus often have difficulty concentrating and sleeping and suffer from tiredness, irritability and anxiety. In a study of 338 New Zealand tinnitus sufferers, half of the study sample reported tinnitus related depression.

The National Foundation for the Deaf (NFD) is working hard to help tinnitus sufferers. A research grant from the NFD to investigate the causes of tinnitus and develop appropriate drug treatments was recently awarded to the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Otago School of Health Sciences, headed by two of New Zealand’s internationally renowned scientists, Professor Paul Smith and Associate Professor Cynthia Darlington.

Marianne Schumacher, executive manager of the National Foundation for the Deaf, says that for many people suffering from tinnitus, it can be extremely distressing and it is therefore important to find the cause and develop the appropriate drug treatments to address this common problem.

“Of the estimated 450,000 New Zealanders affected by deafness or hearing impairment, more than 90% also suffer from some form of tinnitus. It is a common problem, and one that can cause a great deal of anxiety to the sufferer,” said Ms Schumacher.

“Like any hearing disability, tinnitus is an invisible problem and therefore it can be difficult for other people to understand and sympathise with the sufferer. It is not surprising to learn that half the people suffering from tinnitus also suffer from depression.”

Many people have suffered with tinnitus for most of their lives while for others it develops in later years. There are a number of causes of tinnitus including physical trauma, excessive noise and ageing. It can also develop after an injury, illness or infection, following stress, raised blood pressure or as a side-effect of a drug. It may also be the result of something as simple as excessive wax in the ears.

Although tinnitus affects a large proportion of our community its exact mechanisms are unknown. Under the direction of Mr Grant D Searchfield, Director of Auckland University’s Hearing and Tinnitus clinic, further research into methods of identifying, characterizing and managing tinnitus have been ongoing at the University of Auckland since 1998.

One of the most effective strategies for managing tinnitus is referred to as “habituation therapy”. Habituation therapy provides relief from tinnitus by introducing low level l sounds into the ear. The sound partially covers the tinnitus so that it is less audible. People generally learn to ignore the new sound and can learn to ignore the tinnitus as well.

For people concerned that they may be suffering from tinnitus, it is advisable to see a doctor. The tinnitus may be medically treatable– such as in the case of a middle ear infection which can be treated by antibiotics.

The good news is that most people do learn to live with their tinnitus and often forget it is there, but this can be a slow process which takes time. There are a few simple strategies that tinnitus sufferers can follow to help with things others may take for granted, such as getting to sleep at night. Setting the snooze button on the bedside radio to go off after an hour at night can be soothing, and the music helps prevent sufferers listening to their tinnitus. Another effective strategy is the noise between stations on FM radio. This mind numbing sound can also help mask tinnitus.

Caffeine, alcohol or drugs, nicotine, aspirin and some anti-depressants, oral contraceptives, antihistamines and antibiotics have been identified as possible aggravators of tinnitus. Foods that may act as irritants include chocolate, coca-cola, tea, coffee, milo, food containing MSG including Chinese food and noodles, as well as foods such as bacon, ham, luncheon meat and sausages.

For further information or assistance contact the NZ Tinnitus Association, phone 09 410 4939.


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