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How to help your parents manage tinnitus

Emily Broomhead, Projects Manager for the British Tinnitus Association, shares practical tips for managing your parent’s tinnitus and delves into the different devices you can buy to help.

Approximately 10% of adults in the UK have tinnitus. People of any age can have tinnitus but it often affects the elderly as their hearing may worsen over time.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is essentially a ringing in your ears. The sound is a symptom generated within the inner pathways of your ear and can differ in pitch and continuity depending on a person’s individual case. The noise may occur in one or both ears or the head and can be a single noise or many noises.

What causes tinnitus?

The exact cause of tinnitus isn’t fully understood but it can be associated with:

  • Hearing loss
  • Exposure to loud noise
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Ear infection

The ageing process is also another factor to consider in relation to tinnitus. The hair cells in your parent’s inner ear can become damaged over time leading to the attached nerve fibres dying. This causes the brain to try and repair the ear by sending out signals that your parent may hear as sounds.

Tinnitus is rarely an indication of something more serious but it’s worth checking with your parent’s doctor if you’re worried about underlying causes.

Does my parent have tinnitus?

If your parent has tinnitus they may be sensitive to everyday sounds such a noise from the radio or television that seems to be a normal volume for most but for them it can be painfully loud.

Pressure changes within their ears, due to movement and posture changes, can also trigger tinnitus-like symptoms and quiet environments can make internal sounds more noticeable as they’re no longer masked by external noise.

Diagnosing tinnitus can be difficult because it varies from case to case. If you’re concerned your parent has tinnitus it may be a good idea to visit their GP who’ll be able to refer them to the relevant audiology service or an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist.

How can I help my parent manage their tinnitus?

Whilst there is currently no cure for tinnitus there are many ways your parent can minimise the noise that they hear within their ears.

  • Refocus. Help your parent to reduce the amount of family attention their tinnitus is getting. Ask other relations to support your parent by not making it the focus of conversation.
  • Reassure. Worrying about tinnitus can often exacerbate your parent’s symptoms. Encourage them to avoid planning their life around their tinnitus to relieve day-to-day stress.
  • Relax. If your parent calms their breathing and practises muscle relaxation exercises everyday it could help to soothe the sounds their tinnitus causes.
  • Rest. If your parent’s tinnitus is disrupting their sleep it may be that the quiet of their bedroom makes it more noticeable. You could try sound therapy to send them off to sleep.
  • Reschedule. Your parent may watch a lot of television right before they go to bed. This can sometimes be over stimulating before sleep and lead to a restless night. Perhaps suggest reading a book or having a bath before bed to unwind and ease their tinnitus.
  • Reassociate. Helping your parent to reassociate their tinnitus with a positive image can sometimes help to reduce the stress it causes. If their tinnitus sounds like birds chirping encourage them to imagine birds outside their window.
  • React. If your parent tries to avoid their tinnitus altogether they can end up panicking when it worsens. Help your parent to actively shift their attention to something they enjoy instead of focusing on ignoring their tinnitus.

Learning as much as you can about tinnitus will help to reduce your worry which in turn will put your parent’s mind at rest to know that you’re addressing the situation with them.

Can my parent have hearing loss and tinnitus?

Yes. Hearing loss is a common factor underlying tinnitus and often people don’t notice they have hearing loss because they assume it’s their tinnitus that’s causing their hearing difficulties. It’s important your parent has their hearing checked on a regular basis, much the same as they would their eyes.

Can hearing aids help tinnitus?

If your parent has hearing loss and tinnitus, hearing aids will usually be recommended by their audiologist. If your parent’s tinnitus is related to hearing loss (sound deprivation) a hearing aid may help to correct the hearing loss which in turn can reduce their tinnitus.

Your parent can manage their tinnitus by controlling the environmental settings and volume on their hearing aids to allow their hearing a chance to adapt to different sounds in different places. Many people find that when they’ve switched their hearing aids on they hear their tinnitus less and hearing loop systems have been found to improve clarity of sound for tinnitus sufferers, especially when listening to music or the television.

Can my parent mask their tinnitus?

A wearable sound generator or white noise generator can be used as well as a hearing aid to help soothe your parent’s tinnitus. The generator produces a constant “white noise”, a gentle rushing sound that can help distract from the sound of tinnitus.

They look like hearing aids and can be worn in the ear or behind just as you would an aid. There are also devices available that combine both hearing aid and white noise in the one device. White noise generators are an optional part of tinnitus sound therapy and should always be fitted by a hearing specialist as part of a tinnitus management programme.

Although the term “masking” is frequently used, others sounds should actually be used to help distract rather than mask the tinnitus completely. The brain needs to hear the sound of the tinnitus in order to get used to it and start to habituate “get used” to the sound. Once the process of habituation starts, the brain begins to switch off, recognising the sound as normal, and many people then find the noise begins to lessen and go into the background.

Many tinnitus clinics in NHS hospitals can provide a choice of devices and equipment to manage your parent’s tinnitus. The British Tinnitus Association also has a range of sound therapy devices available from their site and can offer advice on which might be most suitable for your parent.

The British Tinnitus Association is a UK charity dedicated to supporting those with tinnitus.  

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