Dr Clare Bailey: Tinnitus – how to kill the buzz

What do the following people have in common: Beethoven, Noel and Liam Gallagher, Keanu Reeves and Ronald Reagan? Like six million Britons, they all suffered or suffer from tinnitus, a distressing condition where you hear sounds in your ears or head which are not caused by external noise. Those who have experienced it describe a ringing in their ears like a roaring ocean, buzzing or tapping sounds.

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These noises may be heard in one or both ears and can be wince-inducing, like nails scraping a blackboard, or feel as loud as the screeching of metal-on-metal of underground trains. Yet nobody else can hear it. It can have a distressing and debilitating impact on people’s lives – keeping them awake at night and leaving them distracted, irritated and depressed with their inability to shut it off.

Many of us have experienced a clicking in our ears with a cold, or an echo on the phone, which can be aggravating. Fortunately our brains are normally incredibly good at filtering out irrelevant information.

This is called habituation. You wear a scratchy top, yet within hours you no longer notice it. Likewise, your brain screens out background sounds, such as the washing machine or traffic so you can hear conversation or the doorbell. But for most people with tinnitus there is a problem with their ears that affects how the brain makes sense of the sounds, leaving them less able to clean up the surrounding ‘noise’. The intrusion of unwanted sounds drives them to distraction.

To find out what you can do, I contacted consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon Chris Aldren. ‘Tinnitus-masking is a well-established technique which can be helpful,’ he told me. ‘Most people find tinnitus is worse when there is no environmental sound, especially when in bed. There are lots of apps that deliver a variety of neutral sounds, such as relaxing music or white noise.’ He suggests using your phone or an under pillow speaker instead of headphones as some people will struggle to sleep wearing them.

Other ways to reduce the symptoms

  • Try not to let tinnitus stop you doing things you enjoy.
  • Practise relaxation, mindfulness and changing focus.
  • Background sounds such as music can help you block out the tinnitus.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy can help reduce awareness and find different ways of responding.
  • Tinnitus retraining therapy uses sound therapy and counselling to help you habituate to the sound.
  • Exposure to prolonged loud noise damages hearing and increases risk. Wear ear protectors for noisy work.
  • To find a local support group, go to tinnitus.org.uk

Many of us will experience tinnitus and most won’t need treatment, but you can get tested in high street stores such as Specsavers and Boots. If you are also getting pain, hearing loss or dizziness, consult a doctor as it may indicate an underlying condition.

Time for a good-for-you brew

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As a nation of tea drinkers we might be doing the right thing for our health. In a new study those who drank tea at least three or more times a week had a 20 per cent lower risk of heart disease and stroke, a 22 per cent lower risk of fatal heart disease and stroke, and a 15 per cent decreased risk of all-cause death, compared to those who drank less tea.

What’s more, those who were consistent in their tea drinking over the seven-year trial did even better, experiencing a 56 per cent lower risk of all-cause death, according to a huge study in China following more than 100,000 healthy participants.

This impressive health impact is thought to be due to polyphenols. These are health-promoting substances that improve blood vessel function and are found in tea, particularly in green tea. They are not stored long term – so regular top-ups are beneficial.

However, research carried out in France has also shown that adding milk to tea may counteract these favourable health effects.

If you have a question you would like answered, email drclarebailey@you.co.uk