Education is the key to dealing with this common but misunderstood condition
Nearly 50 million Americans have experienced tinnitus. Commonly described as ringing in the ears, it is defined by the American Tinnitus Association (ATA) as the perception of sound—including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking—where no external source of noise is present. Tinnitus, while common, varies so much from person to person that it is often misunderstood, by patients and doctors alike.
Many people with tinnitus say that it does not have a significant impact on their life and so they do not seek care, reported AudiologyOnline. However, “roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus” that leads them to seek medical help, according to the ATA. Is your practice reaching and serving these patients well?
The importance of education for both doctors and patients
Considering that tinnitus is generally highly correlated with hearing loss—approximately 80 percent of sufferers also have some form of hearing loss—it “justifies the crucial role audiologists and dispensing professionals play in tinnitus management,” wrote audiologist Michael Piskosz in The Hearing Review.
The first step? Education. “The biggest hurdle clinicians face when it comes to tinnitus management is that most of us do not have the knowledge base to help these individuals.” Piskosz advises providers looking to incorporate tinnitus management into their practice to attend a tinnitus conference, such as those offered by the Tinnitus Practitioners Association (TPA) and the Tinnitus Research Initiative (TRI).
Educating patients on tinnitus facts and misconceptions is important, but so is listening to patients discuss their experiences.
Of course, education is important not only for providers but for tinnitus patients, too. You and your practice staff may need to educate patients on these facts:
- Tinnitus is not technically a disease, but rather a symptom
- There aren’t any true “cures”
- But there are several treatment options that can help
A good place to start your patient education is with clear, simple videos that explain what tinnitus is.
However, be sure to listen to your patients talk about their experiences with tinnitus before rushing to diagnose and educate them. For many patients, this may be the first time a medical provider has taken their symptoms seriously. As Piskosz stated, “Don’t assume the patient knows what you know. Listen to them and how they are explaining their experiences. Tinnitus dramatically affects some people’s lives.”
What audiologists can do and when to refer to an ENT
In many cases audiologists will be able to help relieve symptoms for tinnitus patients. One study of hearing health professionals found that about 60 percent of tinnitus patients experienced some relief when wearing hearing aids; roughly 22 percent of patients found significant relief.
Sound therapy is another common and often effective method for alleviating tinnitus symptoms. One example is sound masking devices or applications that provide generic background noise such as white noise, nature sounds, or other subtle sounds that can temporarily mask a patient’s perception of tinnitus and provide relaxation and relief.
For more tinnitus treatment options, including experimental therapies, visit the ATA web site or ENThealth.org, the web site of the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (AAO-HNSF).
Hearing aids and sound therapy can help some tinnitus patients; others will need a referral to an ENT to determine if underlying conditions are present.
Some tinnitus cases will require a referral to an ENT for a comprehensive medical exam. According to AudiologyOnline, these include:
- Sudden onset of tinnitus, or tinnitus that’s unilateral (occurring on only one side of the body), which could indicate underlying disease.
- Audiometric testing suggests otologic or neuro-otologic conditions such as an acoustic neuroma, or a middle ear condition such as otosclerosis. In some cases, treatment of the underlying medical condition may resolve the tinnitus.
- Comorbidities such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia.
- Systemic diseases such as hypertension, autoimmune disease, and abnormal thyroid functioning.
In all these cases, a full medical workup can identify issues that may be causing or contributing to the tinnitus, and determine if treating the underlying condition can resolve the tinnitus.
How patient education seminars can benefit practices
Tinnitus is a topic that lends itself well to patient education seminars. Hosting a seminar is a way to create awareness and reach out to tinnitus sufferers. Holding patient education seminars can establish your practice’s tinnitus expertise and set you apart from other providers, helping you attract new patients and increase referrals from other practitioners.
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Seminars are a good place to discuss preventable causes of tinnitus, such as excessive noise exposure. Explain the importance of taking precautions to protect your ears in noisy environments, such as wearing earplugs to concerts and lowering the volume on earbuds. Rendia offers several videos that can help illustrate these concepts: