Life Wellbeing Not even your hearing is safe: COVID-19 worsens tinnitus and may be a trigger
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Not even your hearing is safe: COVID-19 worsens tinnitus and may be a trigger

The stress of locked-down life under COVID-19 has worsened some people's tinnitus. For others it was the disease itself. Maybe. Photo: Getty
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Every week we hear that COVID-19 is suspected of causing yet another potential long-term side effect – Parkinson’s disease, inflammation of the heart muscle, acute kidney injury and hair loss are among those named so far.

Add to that, the perception of ringing in the ears and deep inside your head. In most cases, tinnitus is an auditory hallucination or phantom experience, a little like feeling pain where a missing limbs used to be.

A new study of more than 3000 people from 48 countries found that “40 per cent of those displaying symptoms of COVID-19 simultaneously experience a worsening of their tinnitus.”

According to a statement from Anglia Ruskin University, the study focused on people with pre-existing tinnitus – but a small number of participants reported that “their condition was initially triggered by developing COVID-19 symptoms, suggesting that tinnitus could be a ‘long COVID’ symptom in some cases.”

Tinnitus, a quick explainer

According to healthdirect.com.au, the Australian government advice website:

  • Tinnitus is sometimes known as ‘ringing in the ears’, but if you have the condition you might hear humming sounds, or hissing, whistling, clicking, roaring, whooshing or buzzing.
  • The noise can be faint or loud, and it can occur in one or both ears. Sometimes the noise may feel like a sensation inside your head.
  • Tinnitus can come and go, or you might experience it all the time. Some people find their tinnitus is an irritation they can learn to live with. For others, it can be very distressing.
  • Subjective tinnitus, the most common form of the condition, involves noises that only you, the patient, can hear.
  • Objective tinnitus involves noises that a doctor can hear when they examine your ears – this can be caused by a problem with your blood vessels, or with the bones or muscles in your ear.
  • In rare cases, people hear noises that seem to come and go at the same time as their heart beat. This is known as pulsatile tinnitus.
  • About one in three people in Australia suffer from tinnitus at some point in their life. About one in six have constant tinnitus symptoms.

Some COVID-19 complications related to stress

The new study also found that “a large proportion of people believe their tinnitus is being made worse by social distancing measures introduced to help control the spread of the virus.”

According to the Anglia Ruskin University statement:

“Internal worries such as fear of catching COVID-19, financial concerns, loneliness and trouble sleeping have contributed to making tinnitus more bothersome for 32 per cent of people overall, with external factors such as increased video calls, noisier home environments, home schooling and increased coffee and alcohol consumption also cited by respondents.”

Females and the under-50s found tinnitus significantly more bothersome during the pandemic.

What have other researchers found?

A 2011 study from Georgetown University Medical Centre found that tinnitus appears to be “produced by an unfortunate confluence of structural and functional changes in the brain” – brought about by age-related hearing loss, accident or over-exposure to loud sounds.

The researchers say that the phantom ringing sounds “are caused by brains that try, but fail to protect their human hosts against overwhelming auditory stimuli.”

The researchers suggest that the absence of sound caused by hearing loss in certain frequencies “forces the brain to produce sounds to replace what is now missing.”

When the brain’s limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions and other functions, fails to stop these sounds from reaching conscious auditory processing, tinnitus results.

A 2017 study from the University of Illinois also found that chronic tinnitus is associated with changes in certain networks in the brain, and furthermore, “those changes cause the brain to stay more at attention and less at rest.”

An earlier study from the same Illinois researchers found that people with tinnitus who are “less bothered by their symptoms use different brain regions when processing emotional information.”

How is this helpful? It suggests people could retrain their brains to better cope with the symptoms and the attendant emotional complications.

This idea is supported by 2018 research from the University of Bath that found a cognitive based therapy, involving mindfulness, was helpful for sufferers.

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