As the summer holidays are set to begin for children across the UK, many families will be planning to jet off for a holiday in the sun.
However, passengers who suffer from tinnitus may find flights more uncomfortable than others, according to an audiologist. Tinnitus itself is when a person can hear a noise that no one else can hear with no external source of the sound. This means that only you can hear the sound, and there is nothing external to the human body making the noise.
There is no set rule about what that sound will be, with the following being the most common A low pitch humming sound A high pitch whistle Buzzing Clicking Hissing Throbbing Music Below, Katie Ogden, audiologist and Training Manager for hearing ReSound in North-West Europe, highlights how and why air travel can impact sufferers of tinnitus, and how they can manage their symptoms ahead of any travel plans they have booked this Summer.
How does air travel impact our hearing To understand the effects of flying on the ears, it’s useful to be aware of the physiological changes that occur, starting with the general function of the ear. As an organ, the overall purpose of the hearing function of the ear is to convert sound waves into electrochemical impulses for the brain to process. The ear is made up of three main parts the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner. The outer ear consists of the ear canal, which funnels the sound waves to the eardrum. At this point, the middle ear takes over.
It’s a cavity coated with mucus consisting of the three little bones – the maleus, incus and stapes or the hammer, anvil and stirrup. The little bones use kinetic energy and work like levers to transmit the energy created by the vibrating eardrum to pump the fluid around the inner ear, starting the necessary actions for the nerve impulse to be created for the brain to process. The important thing to remember is that the middle ear portion is an airtight cavity linked to the nasopharynx at the back of the throat by the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube is essentially a valve that opens and closes, and often this is a subconscious action enabled by chewing, yawning and swallowing.
Some people can initiate this action consciously by clicking their jaw. It is the role of the Eustachian tube to equalise the fluid and pressure in the middle ear. However, if there is an excess of fluid due to a dysfunction in the Eustachian tube, then there is a potential for infection. Through the restriction in movement of the eardrum or those little bones, the ossicles, hearing loss can occur. When you are on a flight, a disruption in pressure occurs, and the Eustachian tube does not react quickly enough.
Then we get the feeling of pressure, sound becomes muffled due to the restricted movement of the eardrum, and when the Eustachian tube reacts, we get the feeling of our ears popping. This is simply the pressure releasing from the middle ear and is often painless, quick and frequent fliers to be expected. Why can tinnitus symptoms worsen on a flight Should the Eustachian tube fail to do its job for any reason, we call this Eustachian tube dysfunction, then there is a possibility that tinnitus can be heightened but this tends to be temporary for most.
In more extreme cases, the ear-popping experience on a plane can be painful, yet when this occurs, it tends to be because of a rapid descent during the flight, which is rare in itself. If we also consider the cycle of tinnitus, it feeds off of stress which in turn feeds the tinnitus and so on. For those that experience tinnitus and link this to stress or anxiety and have the same feelings towards flying, then it is logical that either building up to or during a flight, their tinnitus appears louder. Tinnitus is an incredibly individual experience, and I have come across a small number of tinnitus sufferers who experience lower levels of tinnitus when flying due to the masking of the louder engine noise on the plane.
It is important to remember that even those with chronic tinnitus will likely not experience any changes in their tinnitus on flights, and for those that do, it is commonly temporary, but should you have prolonged effects because of a flight, seek advice from a heath or hearing care professional. Tips for managing the symptoms of tinnitus ahead of the flight For those that find the engine noise distressing, the seats in front of the wing tend to be quietest, and the use of soft ear plugs can also help. Personally, I find listening to music most relaxing and distracting, as well as anything that helps to distract from the engine noise. But do keep an eye on volume levels.
You don’t want the volume too loud, causing a temporary threshold shift or temporary noise-induced hearing loss, so keep all headphone volume levels at a safe and reasonable level. If you do wear headphones or soft ear plugs on a flight, remember to follow instructions from the onboard cabin crew and only put these in when directed and take them out when asked. Usually, for landing and take-off, we get asked to remove them. If the sound of the engines is not a problem, then avoid using any earplugs as blocking external sound can increase the sound of tinnitus for most; tinnitus is commonly an issue in quieter places because we have less environmental noise to mask it.
Written by: Matthew Thomas
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