What is tinnitus? 

Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can manifest many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, and clicking. In some rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. Tinnitus can be both an acute (temporary) condition or a chronic (ongoing) health condition. It may be soft or loud, high pitched or low pitched. You might hear it in either one or both ears.Tinnitus can be sounds that are so soft you may not notice them or so loud they block out sounds coming from external sources. 

Millions of Americans experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases.

What causes tinnitus? 

Tinnitus (pronounced tin-NY-tus or TIN-u-tus) is not a disease, but rather a symptom of an underlying condition. Most commonly, it is a symptom that something is wrong in the auditory system, which includes the ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound. In older adults, tinnitus can be the first symptom of hearing loss. But tinnitus can be the result of a number of health conditions, including:

  • Hearing loss
  • Excessive noise exposure
  • Earwax
  • Ear and sinus infections
  • Diseases of the heart or blood vessels
  • Ménière’s disease
  • Brain tumors
  • Hormonal changes in women
  • Thyroid abnormalities
  • Inflammation
  • Starting and stopping certain medications

There are lots of conditions mentioned above that cause tinnitus, but some people can also develop tinnitus for no obvious reason as well. Most of the time, tinnitus isn’t a sign of a serious health problem, although if it’s loud or doesn’t go away, it can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and problems with memory and concentration. For some, tinnitus can be a source of real mental and emotional distress.

Why do I have this noise in my ears?

Although we hear tinnitus in our ears, its source is really in the networks of brain cells (what scientists call neural circuits) that make sense of the sounds our ears hear. A way to think about tinnitus is that it often begins in the ear, but it continues in the brain.

Scientists still haven’t agreed upon what happens in the brain to create the illusion of sound when there is none. Some think that tinnitus is similar to chronic pain syndrome, in which the pain persists even after a wound or broken bone has healed.

Tinnitus could be the result of the brain’s neural circuits trying to adapt to the loss of sensory hair cells by turning up the sensitivity to sound. This would explain why some people with tinnitus are oversensitive to loud noise.

Tinnitus also could be the result of neural circuits thrown out of balance when damage in the inner ear changes signaling activity in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. Or it could be the result of abnormal interactions between neural circuits. The neural circuits involved in hearing aren’t solely dedicated to processing sound. They also communicate with other parts of the brain, such as the limbic region, which regulates mood and emotion.

Should I see my doctor if I have tinnitus?

The first thing is to see your primary care physician. Your primary care physician can check and make sure that there is no earwax or blockage in your ear causing the tinnitus.  Your doctor will also ask you about your current health, medical conditions, and medications to find out if an underlying condition is causing your tinnitus. 

If it is only occasional and temporary (e.g. after spending time in noise), it probably doesn’t require medical treatment. However, you should see your doctor if you are constantly experiencing tinnitus and it doesn’t go away.  If tinnitus is accompanied by other symptoms, such as dizziness/balance problems, the tinnitus is affecting your ability to function, or the tinnitus is in one ear only, you should also be seen by your physician. 

What happens if I don’t have a medical condition? Is there a treatment?

If your physician has ruled out medical conditions apart from hearing loss, their next step is recommending ways to manage the impact of tinnitus on your life. Here are some examples:

  • Hearing aids. Many people who have tinnitus also have hearing loss. Hearing aids may help provide relief from tinnitus by making sounds louder and the tinnitus less noticeable.  Hearing aids make it easier for you to hear, which may also make it easier for you to ignore tinnitus.
  • Sound generators. These devices produce and deliver sounds to your ears that mask tinnitus. For example, the sound generator may deliver soothing sounds like a shower or quiet rain. Some people may benefit by using hearing aids that include sound generators.
  • Environmental enrichment devices. You can create your own way of masking tinnitus. Tabletop sound machines that generate soothing background noise, recordings of music, nature or other sounds or apps for smartphones and tablets can make tinnitus less noticeable.
  • Relaxation techniques. Tinnitus can be frustrating and stressful. Stress and frustration may make tinnitus more noticeable. Learning techniques to increase relaxation and ease stress can help people better deal with the frustrations of tinnitus.
  • Counseling options. Some people benefit from mental wellness therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). These therapies help people learn how to pay less attention to tinnitus.

Can I do anything to prevent tinnitus or keep it from getting worse?

Noise-induced hearing loss, the result of damage to the sensory hair cells of the inner ear, is one of the most common causes of tinnitus. Anything you can do to limit your exposure to loud noise—by moving away from the sound, turning down the volume, or wearing earplugs or earmuffs—will help prevent tinnitus or keep it from getting worse.

Contact Gaston Hearing Center Today!

Your tinnitus may be a mild and an intermittent annoyance. Or maybe it’s severe and has profoundly affected your quality of life. Whatever degree of tinnitus you have, finding relief is a priority and we would love to help! Call Gaston Hearing Center to schedule an appointment today! 704-829-8319.

References

  • American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgeons. Clinical Practice Guidelines: Tinnitus. (https://www.entnet.org/quality-practice/quality-products/clinical-practice-guidelines/tinnitus/) Accessed 4/18/2022.
  • American Family Physician. Diagnostic Approach to Patients with Tinnitus. (https://www.aafp.org/afp/2014/0115/p106.html) Accessed 4/18/2022.
  • American Tinnitus Foundation. Understanding the Facts. (https://www.ata.org/understanding-facts) Accessed 4/18/2022.
  • Merck Manuals. Ear Ringing or Buzzing. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/symptoms-of-ear-disorders/ear-ringing-or-buzzing) 4/18/2022.
  • National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Tinnitus. (https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/tinnitus) Accessed 4/18/2022.

Hearing and the Importance of Getting Tested

Hearing screenings should be a consistent part of you and your child’s health care plan. Just like having a yearly physical and eye exams, children and adults should have their hearing checked on a consistent basis. It’s so important to have regular hearing checkups to identify the early warning signs of hearing loss. Hearing problems even in children can be overcome if they’re caught early and can improve language and communication skills. Young adults often suffer from noise-induced hearing loss and aren’t even aware of it, while friends and family can mistake hearing loss in older adults as a cognitive impairment. Since hearing loss often develops slowly over time, you may not be aware of slight or gradual changes in your hearing.

How Can Hearing Loss Occur

There are several factors that contribute to hearing loss such as:

  • Aging
  • Buildup of earwax
  • Ear infection and abnormal bone growths or tumors
  • Ruptured eardrum (tympanic membrane perforation).
  • Loud noise
  • Heredity
  • Occupational noises
  • Recreational noises: exposure to firearms, jet engines, and other recreational activities with dangerously high noise levels like snowmobiling, motorcycling, carpentry or listening to loud music.
  • Some medications
  • Some illnesses

Life Stages for Hearing Screenings

  • Baby. Every child born in a hospital in the US is required by law to be given a hearing test. The earlier a hearing deficit is recognized, the sooner treatments can begin.
  • Children. Sometimes what we perceive to be learning disabilities in school-aged children are actually hearing impairments.
  • Young adults. Noise-induced hearing loss is a becoming more and more common among young adults. When a hearing loss is identified and corrected social interaction and career advancement is easier.
  • Adulthood. About 14% of people from the ages of 45 to 64 have some degree of hearing loss. That rises to more than 30% for people who are 65 or older.
  • Seniors. Approximately one in three adults between the ages of 65 and 74 have some amount of hearing loss, and half of people 75 and older have difficulty hearing. Sometimes this hearing loss is believed to be Alzheimer’s or some other cognitive impairment. It is important that seniors are encouraged to have their hearing tested annually.

Without regular screenings to catch gradual hearing loss as it occurs, relationships can be suffer and feelings of isolation and depression can take over along with loss of interest in social interactions.

Hearing Tests for Adults and Older Children

A hearing test is painless and should take around 30 minutes. Most adults who get hearing tests are asked to wear earphones and listen to short tones that are played at different volumes and pitches into one ear at a time. Whether or not you can hear each sound shows whether or not you can hear high-pitched or low-pitched sounds, quiet or loud sounds, and whether your left or right ear has hearing loss. During some hearing tests, you may also be asked to listen to speech at different volumes, which will be played into one ear at a time. The voices will be played quietly through your earphones, and you’ll be asked to repeat what words were just said. This test is done in a soundproof room, since some people have trouble hearing voices when there’s background noise.

What the Results Mean

While results can show whether you have hearing loss in one/or both ears and how much hearing is gone the intensity of sound is measured in units called decibels. When someone whispers in your ear, that’s 30 decibels. Normal speech is 60 decibels. Shouting in your ear starts at 80 decibels.

Adults with hearing loss up to 25 decibels have normal hearing. Mild hearing loss: 26 to 40 decibels, Moderate hearing loss: 41 to 55 decibels, Moderate-to-severe hearing loss: 56 to 70 decibels, Severe hearing loss: 71 to 90 decibels and Profound hearing loss: 91 to 100 decibels.

Treatment Available

If you have hearing problems, help is available. The right treatment depends on a number of factors, such as severity of hearing loss, the underlying cause, type of hearing loss and your lifestyle. Some options include, but are not limited to, removing wax buildup, surgical procedures, hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive listening devices. Treatments for children are also available, and not limited to, hearing aids, cochlear or brainstem implants, and bone-anchored hearing aids.

How to Get Help

Hearing loss is all too common, but with today’s amazing technology there has never been a better time to seek treatment. If you need help with your hearing, Gaston Hearing Center is here for you. Contact us to schedule an appointment.