What is tinnitus? How do I know I have it?
Simply put, tinnitus is a sound that you can hear that others can not. Tinnitus is not an organic problem in and of itself, instead it’s caused by an underlying condition such as hearing loss. Most people who have hearing loss will report ringing in one or both of their ears. There are tiny hair cells in the cochlea, the snail shaped bone in the inner ear. When those hair cells are stimulated they send a message to the brain that’s interpreted as sound. When those hair cells are bent or broken, they can cause a sound that isn’t really there. This is why the sound is heard by you, but no one else. Some will describe the noise as a high pitched ringing, others will describe it as a humming or buzzing. I’ve heard it described as bacon sizzling, cicadas or a high wire buzz. There is no right or wrong way to describe what tinnitus sounds like. Tinnitus can be there all the time and sometimes it will come and go. Most people will find that tinnitus can be heard the loudest when they are in a very quiet environment such as trying to go to sleep at night.
There are many conditions that cause tinnitus :
- Circulatory Problems
- Ear infections
- Hearing Loss
- High blood pressure
- Medications (commonly prescribed)
- Noise exposure
- Ototoxic medications
- Wax impaction
If the cause of tinnitus is something that’s treatable such as wax impaction, the tinnitus will likely go away when the problem has been treated. In conditions such as hearing loss, the tinnitus is likely to remain. However, the tinnitus can be managed with devices such as hearing aids and sound maskers.
Over 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus. In most cases, tinnitus is nothing to be overly concerned about. Most people with tinnitus learn to live with it and over time find that they don’t even hear it anymore unless they focus on it. There are some cases when tinnitus is a sign of something more serious such as a benign tumor called an acoustic neuroma or vestibular schwannoma. There’s also a small percentage of people who suffer from severe depression because of tinnitus. It’s very important to discuss these issues with your physician
Less common causes of tinnitus include :
Acoustic neuroma or other head and neck tumors
Eustachian tube dysfunction
Ear bone changes
Muscle spasms in the inner ear
Anyone who has tinnitus should be seen by their doctor or audiologist. As stated above, tinnitus is a sign of an underlying condition that may require treatment. The treatment may involve medication and/or surgery, or possibly hearing aids that are programmed specifically to help with tinnitus.
Tinnitus is typically diagnosed by performing a diagnostic audiological evaluation that will show if there is hearing loss present or not. Other tools to aid in diagnosing tinnitus include a thorough case history, tympanometry, acoustic reflex testing and in some cases, an MRI.
Treatment options for tinnitus vary depending on what is causing the tinnitus. For example, if the noise is caused by a wax impaction, clearing the wax may help. If the noise is caused by high blood pressure, your physician may prescribe medication that can help regulate the blood pressure. If hearing loss is the culprit, hearing aids can be very helpful in a few ways. When properly programmed, hearing aids can help by amplifying the sounds around the area of tinnitus to assist in masking out the noise. In addition, current technology allows hearing aids to be wirelessly connected to a smartphone. There are many apps available on both Apple and Android devices that can be streamed into the hearing aids to offer some relief to the user. There are sounds of the ocean or rainforest. Maybe a babbling brook or music are what brings comfort. The options are endless which is great news for tinnitus sufferers.
How can I prevent tinnitus?
If you’re looking for ways to prevent tinnitus, the first thing you can do is limit your exposure to loud noise. And in situations where you are exposed, protect your ears with noise plugs. This could include hunting, car races and concerts. There are ear plugs available at any pharmacy or supermarket. They can typically be found near the eye drops and ear drops. The boxes will have an NRR rating on them. The higher the rating, the more protection. You can also purchase custom made noise plugs from your audiologist. These can include filters for better speech understanding while in noise as well as specially formed plugs for motorcycle riders. However, in some cases, there’s no way to prevent tinnitus. If you suffer from medical conditions such as otosclerosis or circulatory problems, tinnitus may be something you’ll live with. Remember, while it may not be something that can be completely terminated, tinnitus is a condition that IS treatable.