Imagine a ringing in your ears so intense and unrelenting that you become desperate enough to try to kill yourself.
That is a reality for some – women in particular – who suffer from severe tinnitus, new research shows.
Sex-specific psychological impact
The survey of 72 000 Swedish adults found that 9% of women who suffered from severe tinnitus had attempted suicide, as had 5.5% of men.
After analysing the data, European researchers found that the association between ringing ears and risk for attempted suicide was only significant for women.
"It is important to say that an increased risk of suicide attempts does not mean an increased risk in suicide events," said lead researcher Christopher Cederroth, from the laboratory of experimental audiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Also, only an association and not a cause-and-effect link was observed.
Cederroth added that he isn't aware of any completed suicides related to tinnitus.
"Our results reflect more the sex-specific psychological impact of tinnitus rather than a risk of committing suicide," he said.
On the plus side, Cederroth said that the risk for suicide isn't significant for people who have had their tinnitus treated.
Help is available
"Medical attention by a specialist may help decrease tinnitus-related distress," he said. "Even though there are currently no treatments to get rid of tinnitus, seeing a specialist may help decrease the distress and diminish the risk of suicide attempts."
Dr Darius Kohan, director of otology/neurotology at Lenox Hill Hospital and the Manhattan Eye Ear and Throat Hospital in New York City, reviewed the study. He said that although the cause of most tinnitus isn't known, ways to help people cope with the condition are available.
"Tinnitus can be very severe and debilitating," Kohan said, noting that it's a very common condition, affecting about 20% of the population. He isn't sure why the association between tinnitus and suicide risk appears more serious in women than men. Perhaps it's just the way the study was done, he said.
"It's old age and degeneration of the blood supply to the inner ear, plus hearing loss as the nerve cells die off," said Kohan. In addition, stress, caffeine and aspirin can cause tinnitus, he said.
Treatment usually involves helping people cope with the condition, Kohan said. Treatments can include cutting out caffeine and aspirin and also taking supplements such as Ginkgo biloba or B vitamins.
Most insurance doesn't cover treatment
In addition, patients can use various devices to provide a background sound to mask the ringing in their ears. These can include white noise generators, an air conditioner, or even the TV, Kohan said. This can be especially effective at night when tinnitus can be at its worst.
Other treatments that may work are acupuncture and cognitive behavioural therapy, Kohan said. Patients can be taught to ignore the sound. Some patients may also need antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, he added.
Richard Tyler, an audiologist and professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Iowa, said that most insurance doesn't cover treatment for tinnitus.
"It certainly is true that many tinnitus sufferers have severe problems with thoughts and emotions, hearing, sleep and concentration," Tyler said. "Unfortunately, there is no reimbursement to the hearing health care field for counselling and sound therapy. This is a major obstacle."
The report was published online in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.
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