What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus, commonly known as a “ringing of the ear,” is a condition in which one hears noises without the stimulus of external causes. Tinnitus causes head noises that differ from person to person: ringing, knocking, hissing, roaring, whistling, buzzing, a rush of air, and even in some rare cases, music.
The configuration of tinnitus differs between people as well. For some, only one ear may have tinnitus, while others may experience it in both ears. Tinnitus sounds vary in volume and pitch, and they may cut in and out.
If left untreated, tinnitus may lead to additional risks such as increased levels of stress and anxiety. For those who experience chronic tinnitus, these sounds may interfere with most aspects of daily life, from morning to night.
Prevalence of Tinnitus
In the US, an estimated 10% of adults – 25 million Americans – have experienced tinnitus for at least five minutes (temporary tinnitus). Chronic tinnitus usually lasts longer and may extend over years. Approximately 60% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan reported tinnitus and hearing loss. Tinnitus and hearing loss often appear hand in hand. According to the Hearing Health Foundation, an estimated 90% of tinnitus cases occur with an underlying hearing loss.
There are two types of tinnitus:
Subjective tinnitus is experienced only by the person suffering from tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus makes up more than 90% of tinnitus cases, making it the more common form of this condition. Subjective tinnitus is linked to age-related or noise-induced hearing loss, in which exposure to loud sounds damage the hair cells of the inner ear. Researchers have suggested that damage to these inner ear cells cause them to “leak” signals to the brain which are then registered as sound, even when no stimulus is present. Subjective tinnitus may occur due to injuries, tumors, head and neck trauma, Meniere’s disease, or impacted earwax.
Objective tinnitus creates sounds that can be heard by both the person with tinnitus and someone in close proximity. Objective tinnitus usually suggests issues with the cardiovascular system, such as high blood pressure or abnormalities in the blood vessels of the head and neck area surrounding the ear. With pulsatile tinnitus, tinnitus sounds may match the heartbeat’s heartbeat. Smoking and high blood pressure both increases the risk of tinnitus by constricting blood vessels within the head and neck area. In other cases, issues with one’s musculo-skeletal system may lead to objective tinnitus, such as muscle spasms near the ear. Objective tinnitus is quite rare, making up less than 1% of tinnitus cases.
Seeking Treatment for Tinnitus
Tinnitus may not “sound” like a big issue, but for many people, it is life-altering. The consistent sounds – which tend not to be pleasant – could lead to frustration, depression, stress, anxiety, concentration issues, and sleep deprivation.
As with hearing loss, there is no cure for tinnitus, but there are many treatment options available. In some instances, where tinnitus is related to other medical conditions, treating that related condition could help reduce or eliminate the symptoms of tinnitus. If you experience tinnitus and its occurrence has become more regular, it is important to seek medical treatment.
With temporary tinnitus, the noises may cut in and out without warning. In chronic cases, people may experience tinnitus with more consistency. Because hearing loss and tinnitus are so closely linked, many major hearing aid manufacturers have developed hearing aids with technology to address tinnitus. Sound masking and sound therapy features are available with most advanced hearing aids from major manufacturers.
Depending on the cause of tinnitus, a change in medication, lifestyle, or diet may reduce or eliminate the symptoms. Removing impacted earwax may help if there appears to be blockages in your ear canals. If you have been experiencing tinnitus, hearing loss, or both, take the first step towards better hearing health.