Ringing ears: not so uncommon anymore
Airplanes in the head: Tinnitus patients can relearn hearing. Thorsten Wiese in Wuppertal reports on treatments for an increasingly common health problem.
More and more people in Germany suffer from ringing or buzzing in the ear. According to the German Tinnitus League (DTL) in Wuppertal, more than 3 million people are affected, with 270,000 suffering from chronic tinnitus.
The noises that patients hear permanently in their heads can vary considerably: they can be high- and low-pitched, as well as buzzing, whistling and ringing noises.
Some sufferers describe the condition sounding "as if a jet fighter were taking off inside the head," says Tanja Nickol, chief doctor at the Tinnitus Clinic in Bad Arolsen (Hesse state).
The consequences range from migraines and insomnia to depression and panic attacks. Many people are so badly afflicted that they are unable to work, and some become so desperate that suicide is often on their minds, says Nickol.
The causes of tinnitus have yet to be fully explained. "We have identified around 400 various reasons," says Lutz-Michael Schaefer, ear, nose and throat specialist at the Habichtswald Ayerveda Tinnitus Clinic near Kassel.
Sometimes a loud noise can be the trigger, but in around 30 percent of cases, the DTL has identified damage to the inner ear caused by long-term exposure to loud noise at work or in free time. Other causes are side-effects brought on by drugs, allergies, metabolic disorders or illnesses of the hear, nose and throat regions.
For many people, tinnitus aurium is also a symptom of stress. "Around two-thirds of all tinnitus patients report living under considerable stress before the disease appeared," notes Schaefer.
They go on to suffer ringing or buzzing in the ear as tenseness leads to circulatory disorders within the organ, which in turn makes fine auditory hair cells unable to perform their function in filtering only relevant information to the brain.
Around 70 percent of all noises around us are filtered by the ear daily: "That explains why we can't normally hear ourselves swallowing," says Schaefer.
Tinnitus patients have to relearn this filtering function from scratch and make a conscious effort to reduce stress levels to help them learn how to hear again.
This is the concept employed in "tinnitus retraining therapy" (TRT). "Tinnitus patients tend to become set on the idea that they are stuck with the noises," says Nickol. "So, they have to learn to divert their perceptions to other noises." Methods to do this are provided by special hearing techniques.
When patients learn to concentrate on these tones, they can successfully cut out the ear noises. "It's like living next to a train line," says Elke Knoer, president of the Tinnitus League. "After a while, you don't hear the noise because it's not important."
Tinnitus sufferers should beware of untrustworthy therapies. "Because tinnitus is now almost a folk illness, there are numerous treatments whose efficacy has not been proven," warns Hans-Udo Homoth, chairman of the Association of German Ear-, Nose- and Throat-Doctors in Neumuenster.
The more fantastic the promises of a complete cure, the more sceptical one should be.