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
- Ear and sinus infections
- Diseases of the heart or blood vessels
- Ménière’s disease
- Brain tumors
- Hormonal changes in women
- Thyroid abnormalities
- 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.
- 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.