Healthy Living: Listening to the sufferers of tinnitus

Hearing therapist Clare Marris with one of her patients at the Hallamshire Hospital
Hearing therapist Clare Marris with one of her patients at the Hallamshire Hospital
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THERE are around 55,000 people in Sheffield suffering from one of the most potentially debilitating conditions imaginable.

But walk past many of them in the street and you would never know.

That’s because they suffer from tinnitus - persistent noises in the ear which can appear as ringing and buzzing, to more unusual sounds such as waves crashing and even drilling.

Currently, the condition is incurable, although many treatments and therapies are available to help sufferers adjust to the symptoms.

A dedicated team of medics at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital sees scores of patients every year with tinnitus, and this week the British Tinnitus Association is running events to raise public awareness.

Clare Marris, a specialist hearing therapist at the Hallamshire’s neurotology department, said around 30 per cent of the British population experience tinnitus during their lifetime.

“We see a range of people of all different ages and different levels of distress in terms of their tinnitus,” she said.

“Only 10 per cent is persistent and lasts for longer than a few minutes, and it’s probably around five per cent who present to the hospital with tinnitus. Some can be fine in the day because they’re busy, but find their sleep is disrupted, but there is a small proportion of people who are very disturbed, and find it has a huge impact on their life.

“Our department will look after and help manage people’s tinnitus, whether it be a small or severe problem.”

Clare will be joining colleagues for a free open day in Sheffield’s Winter Gardens tomorrow, from 9.30am to 4pm. They will be providing information and answering questions, while visitors can also look at tinnitus resources and equipment.

Clare said tinnitus noises vary widely, and can be pulsatile - a rhythmical noise with the same rate as the heart - as well as the typical ringing and buzzing.

“Some people’s sounds can be related to movements in the head and neck, but that’s quite rare,” she said.

“Very occasionally, a tiny proportion hear what we call musical tinnitus. It’s usually people that have had tinnitus for many years, and what happens is that the hearing part of the brain pieces the tinnitus together and tries to make sense of it as an old familiar tune.”

Research has thrown up different theories as to the cause of tinnitus, such as damage to the tiny hair cells in the ear, but Clare said the precise origin isn’t always clear.

“Tinnitus is certainly not a psychological condition and can be triggered for lots of different reasons. It is activity somewhere along the auditory pathway, people tend to think something is wrong with the ear but that’s not necessarily the case.

“It’s just a subtle change that the brain pieces together as some kind of sound. Sometimes people first experience it when they’ve been in noise, and sometimes they get it when they’re not very well - maybe they’ve had an operation, or are really distressed or anxious about something.

“I don’t see many younger people, but in terms of MP3 players, people need to think about mediating the level of sound they present to their ears.”

Each patient is given an individually-tailored package of therapy at the Hallamshire, depending on their levels of distress, following a full assessment.

Options include hearing aids, self-help, relaxation therapy, stress management and psychotherapy for severe cases. The Sheffield-based BTA also runs support groups, where sufferers can get together to share their experiences and advice.

“People can be fitted with a white noise generator to help with habituation or desensitisation, but the more contemporary approach is sound management or psychological therapy,” Clare said. “We give them lots of reassurance. We explain about the hearing mechanism, we always say that the ear hears and the brain listens.”

She continued: “People often say it’s hard for their family and friends to understand, it’s hard to put yourself in their shoes. We expect our ears to be quiet, but in fact the hearing system, like the rest of our body, is an active place.”

But Clare sis doubtful a definitive cure will be found soon.

“I’m not sure when it will be. There has been some research about the regeneration of hair cells which is a big step forward, so there’s definitely some hope. I’m sure at some point there will be some research that indicates a possible cure.”