SELF-HELP for tinnitus by recognition, relaxation and retrainingThis page covers the text of leaflet 'Tinnitus Explained'
What is tinnitus? Why me?
"If only I had known this when my noises first started it would have made a world of difference to my life" —— from a helpline caller.
Tinnitus is the sensation of a sound, not audible to others, often described as a continual ringing, buzzing or whistling in the head or ear(s). It is usually due to a very minor disorder of the hearing system, sometimes associated with ageing and/or noise exposure. Slight changes in the system may be sensed as tinnitus.
Although the noises are harmless, we know from personal experience tinnitus is sometimes very distressing (to say the least) but it is not life threatening and the quality of your life can be recovered. Most people who are upset by their tinnitus learn to manage it through self-help. However it may take time, so don't feel disheartened. A visit to your doctor will usually reassure you that there are no underlying medical conditions you may be worrying about.
The Hearing System
It helps if you understand the system.
Sound reaches you as waves in the air and is converted by the inner parts of the ear (cochlea) to nerve signals. These minute electrical signals pass up the hearing nerve to the first part of the brain which sorts out what is immediately important and usually ignores most unwanted sound. Tinnitus is a perception of an unwanted internal noise that is often persistent, especially in sensitive people.
Imagine a new clock. At first the gentle ticking is very audible. Gradually you are no longer aware of it yet a friend remarks on the loudness. You have habituated to it, i.e you are no longer conscious of it, whilst to the friend it is a new sound; it can be irritating and even threatening. The same habituation occurs on trains - one soon ignores the track noise! Similarly, pleasant sound of gentle waves at the seaside is soon ignored.
The hearing system is quite magic - but sensitive - especially in sensitive people. We learn to ignore mother's heartbeat and other bodily noises in the womb because we are in a cosy trouble-free place and the noises are soon familiar, unimportant and not a threat! Later we enjoy rhythms, melodies and harmonious sounds often with a beat. We can distinguish familiar sounds in a great hubbub of other sounds such as our name in a crowd or baby's cry above the telly or even a single musical instrument in a full orchestra.
Unfortunately, this natural selectivity can be disturbed by life's events, especially in sensitive people, and this wonderful facility may cause unwanted noises to dominate, at least until the system is retrained to ignore them.
The hearing system can automatically turn up the volume (gain) when we want to hear something or are anxious about some sound. Unfortunately it turns up unwanted noises too! Often, ageing tends to reduce the hearing capacity for external sounds, so that internal sounds can be noticed, when previously they were not.
Physical or mental shock can also disturb the whole system. Exposure to loud noise, especially sudden noise (e.g. gunshot, disco) can also overstress because the hearing system needs time to turn down its sensitivity. In time the resulting acute perception of sounds, either the tinnitus or external sounds (hyperacusis) or both, subsides naturally but sometimes the acute phase persists and therapy is necessary to assist retraining of the system to to regain its autonomic skill.
Relaxation to relieve tensions
Tension caused by worry about your tinnitus is natural, so learning to relax is vital part of the relief process. The noises in your head often create a vicious cycle of tension and worry about the cause and the effect on your lifestyle.
This vicious circle of tension can make tinnitus worse
But YOU CAN break this circle!
Remember your hearing system wakes up first, sleeps last and is always alert. Tensions cause your hearing system to go on full alert (like a violin string!). Relaxing the rest of your body lets the hearing system calm down. To relieve the tension in your body, use simple relaxation exercises that involve consciously telling your body to relax.
This is one way.
Find a comfortable position. Now breathe in slowly and clench your fist. Feel the tension in your hand and wrist. Now breathe out, and as you do so relax your hand and feel the difference. Repeat this by tensing and relaxing each group of muscles in your body in a systematic way. Check that you don't have hidden tensions that keep your hearing system tense.
(Think relax 24/7 365 days a year!
A suitable tape helps, like 'Listen & Do' from HUSH. Once you have tensed and relaxed all the major groups of muscles just rest and breathe quietly for a while. It will take practice and time to feel the full benefits. You can practice quiet relaxation at any time because it helps if you keep each part of your body as calm as possible. Some people find aromatherapy, massage, reflexology or learning the Alexander technique, Yoga or Tai Chi to be helpful. The key is to find what helps you the most and practice it often, at least daily. At HUSH we find that improving posture can also help with some forms of tinnitus.
Learning the Alexander Technique, especially the semi supine position can be helpful. Find a simple book such as the New Life Library publication by Michele Mac Donnel or a teacher. We have a simple leaflet.
Retraining the hearing system
Natural sounds helping nature
From experience we have found it is possible for the tinnitus noises to gradually recede into the background so that we are no longer aware of them. You may find this hard to believe - we did!
Doctors call this natural habituation. It can be enhanced using a medically prescribed sound generator or through self help using pleasant low level sounds (such as gentle sounds of the sea!) from radio, cassette, CD player or other sound source. The level of sound needs to be just below that of the tinnitus.
It is important to avoid long periods of silence. The use of comforting background sounds, either in the room or via in-ear phones, 3-4 hours or preferably more a day and at night, focuses attention away from the tinnitus and speeds up the process of rehabilitation to the tinnitus.
Remember, an addition to room level sounds may annoy others so treat ?yourself to some good in ears, a personal stereo that you can carry about and even play when watching television, walking or enjoying other pursuits, even at work. You will need a battery charger!
Tinnitus can be compared to sustained faulty piano notes that cause a continuous sound. The use of a wide band of sound provides the rest of the keyboard as a pleasant and undemanding low volume background, and makes the faulty sound less intrusive. We suggest the tranquil sounds of gently lapping waves as the known sound that gradually fades into the background.