Viewpoint: It's time to take tinnitus more seriously

Professor Chris Dowrick, a GP who suffers from tinnitus, explains how GPs can provide more support to patients with the condition.

Professor Chris Dowrick
Professor Chris Dowrick

Tinnitus can be a very isolating condition to live with. A recent survey by the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) found that 61% of the 483 respondents said their tinnitus makes them feel isolated from society.

The research also found that 58% thought a lack of understanding from others about the condition led to their feelings of isolation, while 33% said they felt their problem was too easily dismissed by those around them.

When asked how their isolation could be improved, 67% called for better public awareness about the impact the condition can have and more than a third (34%) believed that better support from their GP could make a difference.

For me, as a GP, these statistics are pretty heartbreaking to read but as somebody who also has tinnitus I can see how the problem arises.

There is a widespread lack of knowledge about the condition among both the general public and the medical profession, and the BTA has launched the Share Your Sound campaign in a bid to tackle this issue.

People living with tinnitus need to be encouraged to talk openly about their condition and how it impacts on their lives so others can understand it and not be as dismissive. GPs have a role to play here, too.

Guidance for GPs

Earlier this year the BTA released its GP guidance to try and help the nation’s doctors manage tinnitus patients’ needs more effectively. The guidance provides GPs with valuable information around when to refer patients onwards, as well as details about the different ways tinnitus can be managed.

It has been well received but patients also need to feel empowered enough to challenge their GP if they feel they’re not getting the right kind of support.

That’s why as part of Share Your Sound the BTA is asking patients to take a copy of the guidance to their own GP, sharing their story with their doctor and making sure he or she has the right, up-to-date information to deal with their case in the right way.

It’s important for all GPs to increase their knowledge of the condition and to ensure that we as a profession are doing all we can to help those living with tinnitus.

Working as a GP in a busy practice in Liverpool, I’m able to help the many tinnitus patients I see because I’m tuned in to thinking about it, and will always take notice when patients mention symptoms related to funny noises they're hearing.

Of course it's important for me to keep an eye out for potential problems, such as pulsatile symptoms or associated deafness or dizziness, when I refer them straightaway for a specialist ENT or audiology opinion. If they have evidence of anxiety or depression I will concentrate with them on managing those problems. 

But most of the time I listen and assure patients that although tinnitus may be there for the duration, it is not a serious condition in itself and it is something that we can come to terms with and that can improve.

I am happy to share my own experience, which patients generally find reassuring.  I often suggest simple approaches using distracting noises, including having the radio on low at night, or relaxation techniques including yoga, tai-chi and meditation.

My main message is that there is life with tinnitus and it is about finding the ways that work best for each individual as every patient will have a different coping strategy.

Find out more about the Share Your Sound campaign and download the GP guidance here.

  • Professor Chris Dowrick is a GP in Liverpool, professor of primary medical care at the University of Liverpool and a member of the British Tinnitus Association’s professional advisory committee

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