Tinnitus is the perception of a sound that has no external source. Some of the more common sounds reported are ringing, humming, buzzing and cricket-like. It can be constant or intermittent and is heard in one ear, both ears or in the head. It is important to note that tinnitus is a symptom and not a disease. The exact physiological cause or causes of tinnitus are not known. There are, however, several likely sources, all of which are known to trigger or worsen tinnitus.
The Most Common Causes of Tinnitus are:
- Noise exposure - Exposure to loud noises can damage and even destroy hair cells, called cilia, in the inner ear. Once damaged, these hair cells cannot be renewed or replaced.
- Head and neck trauma - Physical trauma to the head and neck can induce tinnitus. Other symptoms include headaches, vertigo, and memory loss.
- Certain disorders, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and thoracic outlet syndrome, can have tinnitus as a symptom. When tinnitus is a symptom of another disorder, treating the disorder can help alleviate the tinnitus.
- Certain types of tumors
- Wax build-up
- Jaw misalignment
- Cardiovascular disease
- Ototoxicity - Some medications are ototoxic, that is, the medications are toxic to the ear. Other medications will produce tinnitus as a side effect without damaging the inner ear. Effects, which can depend on the dosage of the medication, can be temporary or permanent. Before taking any medication, make sure that your prescribing physician is aware of your tinnitus, and discuss alternative medications that may be available.
- Pulsatile tinnitus - Rare type of tinnitus that sounds like a rhythmic pulsing in the ear, typically in time with one's heartbeat. This kind of tinnitus can be caused by abnormal blood flow in arteries or veins close to the inner ear, brain tumors or irregularities in brain structure.
Many causes of tinnitus are unknown.
Tinnitus is usually accompanied by hearing loss, and sometimes accompanied by loudness hyperacusis (when moderately loud sounds are perceived as very loud). Some 50 million adults suffer from tinnitus (it can also affect children). For 12 million adults, the problem is severe enough that it impacts their everyday life. Because tinnitus can be a symptom of a more serious disorder, it is important to have an appropriate evaluation from an audiologist or physician.
The Impact of Tinnitus
Tinnitus affects people differently. Common areas in which tinnitus has a direct influence on the quality of everyday life include:
- Thoughts and emotions. Some are annoyed, bothered, depressed, anxious or angry about their tinnitus. They think and focus on their tinnitus often.
- Hearing. In some, the sound of the tinnitus competes with or masks speech or environmental sound perception.
- Sleep. Many tinnitus sufferers report that their tinnitus interferes with them getting to sleep. It can also make it more difficult to get back to sleep when they wake up in the middle of the night.
- Concentration. Some tinnitus sufferers report that they have difficulty focusing on a task because of their tinnitus. This might include reading a book or the newspaper.
The Treatment of Tinnitus
For most tinnitus sufferers, there is no cure. There is no medication or surgery that has been shown to eliminate tinnitus in scientific studies that have been replicated and accepted by the health care community. Sometimes a medication can cause tinnitus, and stopping or changing medications can eliminate the tinnitus (check with the physician who prescribed the medication). There are several types of treatment that help people adjust to their tinnitus.
- Counseling. Counseling can be beneficial with thoughts and emotions, hearing, sleep and concentration.
- Sound Therapy. Many tinnitus sufferers report that the presence of background sound reduces the prominence or the loudness of their tinnitus. The background sound can be present in the environment (e.g. fan noise). There are non-wearable devices that produce pleasant background sound (e.g. raindrops). Additionally, wearable maskers or sound generators are available that produce a 'shhh' noise (these can also be combined with hearing aids). Music can also be very effective in non-wearable and wearable devices.
- Hearing aids improve communication, reduce the stress associated with intensive listening, and also can partially mask the tinnitus.
- Self-help Books. There are also some excellent self-help books and on-line resources available, including the American Tinnitus Association.
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Adapted in part from www.betterhearing.org