Tinnitus is a condition where the patient hears a ringing or other noise that is not produced by an external source. This disorder can occur in one or both ears, range in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal, and may be continuous or sporadic. This often debilitating condition has been linked to ear injuries, circulatory system problems, noise-induced hearing loss, wax build-up in the ear canal, medications harmful to the ear, ear or sinus infections, misaligned jaw joints, head and neck trauma, Ménière’s disease, or an abnormal growth of bone of the middle ear. In rare cases, slow-growing tumors on auditory, vestibular or facial nerves can cause tinnitus as well as deafness, facial paralysis and balance problems. The American Tinnitus Association estimates that more than 50 million Americans have tinnitus problems to some degree, with approximately 12 million people having symptoms severe enough to seek medical care.
Tinnitus is not uncommon in children. Although it is as common as in adults, children generally do not complain of tinnitus. Researchers believe that a child with tinnitus considers the noise in the ear to be normal, as it has usually been present for a long time. A second explanation of the discrepancy is that the child may not distinguish between the psychological impact of tinnitus and its medical significance.
Continuous tinnitus can be annoying and distracting, and in severe cases can cause psychological distress and interfere with your child’s ability to lead a normal life. The good news is that most children with tinnitus seem to eventually outgrow the symptom. It is unusual to see a child carry the problem into adulthood.
If you think your child has tinnitus, first arrange an appointment with your family physician or pediatrician. If the child does not have a specific problem with the ears such as middle ear inflammation with thick discharge, then it may be necessary to have your child referred to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist).
What treatment may be offered
Most people, including children, who are diagnosed with tinnitus find that there is no specific problem underlying their tinnitus. Consequently, there is no specific medicine or operation to “cure” the problem. However, experts suggest that the following steps be taken with the child diagnosed with tinnitus:
- Reassure the child: Explain that this condition is common and they are not alone. Ask your physician to describe the condition to the child in terms and images that they can understand. Depending on the nature of the tinnitus, the doctor may order further testing, such as a hearing test, a CT scan or MRI.
- Explain that he/she may feel less distressed by their tinnitus in the future: Many children find it helpful to have their tinnitus explained carefully and to know about ways to manage it. This is partly due to a medical concept known as “neural plasticity”, where children are more able to change their response to all kinds of stimulation. If carefully managed, childhood tinnitus may not be a serious problem.
- Use sound generators or provide background noise. Sound therapy, which makes tinnitus less noticeable, has been used to treat adults for some time, and can also be used with children. If tinnitus occurs on a regular basis, with sound therapy the child’s nervous system can adapt to the condition. The sound can be environmental, such as a fan or quiet background music.
- Have hearing-impaired children wear hearing aids. A child with tinnitus and hearing loss may find that hearing aids can help improve the tinnitus. Hearing aids can pick up sounds children may not normally hear, which in turn will help their brains filter out their tinnitus. It may also help them by taking the strain out of listening. Straining to hear can make your child’s brain focus on the tinnitus noises.
- Help your child to sleep with debilitating tinnitus. Severe tinnitus may lead to sleep difficulties for the young patient. Ask your otolaryngologist the best strategy to adopt if your child cannot sleep.
- Finally, help your child relax. Some children believe their tinnitus gets worse when they are under stress. Discuss appropriate stress-relieving techniques with your pediatrician or family physician.