Tinnitusby Sylvie Hébert, Ph.D.
/ June 1, 2001
Both Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann might have suffered from tinnitus. In a letter to his friend Wegeler, Beethoven complains about the humming in his ears that continues “day and night, without ceasing.” As for Schumann, anecdotal reports suggest that he permanently heard a musical note in his head. Tinnitus, one of the most common hearing problems, is the illusory perception of a sound in the ear or head. It is usually described as a buzzing, whistling, or ringing sound, and is conservatively estimated to occur in 10–15% of the adult population. The most important predictor of tinnitus is hearing loss, which is most likely to occur in association with aging, although not exclusively so.
Tinnitus may cause severe distress to the sufferer because it fluctuates in intensity and can sometimes become intolerable. People affected by it cannot “find the silence” anymore, and this permanent noise in the ear can seriously impede their sleep and their mood by making them more irritable, depressed, or anxious. There is no universally accepted treatment for the condition. However, the symptoms may be treated, which sometimes decreases the impact on the mood and well-being of the person affected. It should be noted that although tinnitus may be very disturbing, it does not constitute a risk per se for health. In rare cases it can signal the presence of health problems (diabetes or hypertension, for instance). From a scientific point of view, tinnitus poses a particular challenge to research because it is difficult to describe. There are as yet no clinical means to detect its presence. The exact mechanisms of the disease are still unknown. Tinnitus probably involves brain plasticity, that is, the capacity of the brain to reorganize itself following hearing loss, but may also involve some abnormal neurochemical processes. Current research in neuroscience should soon provide us with answers for the causes and treatment of this prevalent hearing problem.
The author is Professor at the École d'orthophonie et d'audiologie, Université de Montréal. Acknowledgements: The preparation of this article was made possible thanks to a grant from Fonds de la recherche en
santé du Québec.