Causes of tinnitus
Humming, crackling, whistling, whooshing or hissing in the ears: an estimated 800,000 people in Switzerland suffer from tinnitus. Triggers include sudden deafness or blast injuries, which is when the high sound pressure of fireworks or nearby lightning damages the sensory cells in the inner ear. Harm can also be caused by the widely used marten or cat repellents – if their sounds are within a range audible to humans. ENT physician Andreas Schapowal therefore advises setting the devices to at least 21 kilohertz or higher. Tinnitus can also be a consequence of tense jaw muscles, caused by nightly teeth grinding.
Acute or chronic
Experts differentiate between acute and chronic tinnitus. Acute tinnitus usually disappears without lasting damage. Chronic whistling or hissing, on the other hand, lasts longer than three months and is accompanied by another phenomenon: "The noise is produced in the brain, although damage to the ear can no longer be proven," explains Rahul Gupta, psychiatrist and head physician at the Tinnitus Clinic in Chur. However, this doesn't mean that sufferers are imagining these noises; rather, they have a perception problem. As the brain tries to compensate for the discomfort, activity in the auditory pathway increases which patients perceive in the form of the ringing noise. Why this seems to get louder particularly under stress or psychological strain isn't clear. One reason might be that the compensation takes place in the limbic system, which is the part of the brain responsible for our emotions.
Therapy helps people to live with tinnitus
In any case, it's clear that chronic tinnitus can be extremely stressful and drive patients to despair. This is the case with around 8,000 sufferers in Switzerland. When the ringing in the ears severely impairs a person’s quality of life, and when work, family and hobbies suffer, Rahul Gupta advises treatment. However, the idea is not to get rid of the tinnitus, as this only succeeds in exceptional cases. Over the course of a few weeks in the clinic, patients are taught to reframe their negative perception and to accustom themselves to the noise sufficiently enough that daily life becomes more manageable.
The treatment generally consists of various elements: relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioural therapy, and alternative healing methods such as acupressure. "A large proportion of patients feel better afterwards," says Rahul Gupta. In the long run, however, they will only live better with the intrusion if they strictly apply what they have learned at home too.