Tinnitus, a audiological issue that affects 1 in 5 people, refers to the chronic perception of an unwelcome noise in the ears, often a ringing sound. Tinnitus itself is not a disease or disorder. It is a symptom that can find its root in many different health conditions, such as hearing loss or ear injury.
While about 75% of people who have tinnitus are not hindered by it, living with constant ringing or other noise can be very trying for those who are affected adversely by it. And while there is no cure for tinnitus, there are treatments available to ameliorate its effects or resolve the underlying causes.
Symptoms of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is an internal issue. It involves the presence of annoying sound in the ears even in the absence of external noise. Tinnitus can affect one or both ears, often taking the form of buzzing, ringing, hissing, or clicking. It can be high or low pitched, and the sound may sometimes seem to be heard in the head rather than the ears.
Tinnitus affects different people in different ways. For some, it is almost always present and makes concentrating exceedingly difficult. For others, it comes and goes in waves and isn’t particularly inhibiting to most daily activity.
Tinnitus can be classified into two types:
Subjective tinnitus, the most common form, is tinnitus that can only be heard by the patient. It does not register on hearing tests and can be related to ear problems, auditory nerves, or your brain’s ability to interpret signals.
Objective tinnitus is less common, and your doctor will be able to hear the sound via a medical exam. Objective tinnitus is often the result of muscle contractions, blood vessel damage, or middle ear bone damage.
Causes of Tinnitus
Since tinnitus is a symptom rather than a condition of its own, the causes can be wide and varied—much in the same way that a fever can accompany a multitude of ailments.
One of the most common causes of tinnitus involves damage to the inner ear cells. Within your ear are countless tiny hairs that transmit sound waves to the brain called cilia. If your cilia are damaged, they may begin to send signals even when no sound is present, causing your brain to interpret them as an internal noise. This is one reason that tinnitus is often known as a “phantom sound”.
A number of other causes can explain where a patient’s tinnitus stems from. The following is not an exhaustive list, and only a licensed professional should be trusted to diagnose the cause of your tinnitus:
Noise Exposure. Failing to adequately protect your ears from excessive noise can lead to ear damage that causes tinnitus. Examples include listening to loud music from headphones or at a concert, as well as operating heavy machinery. Loud noise can cause short or long term tinnitus. Permanent damage can result from regular exposure to dangerous noise levels without hearing protection.
Presbycusis. This term refers to the natural loss of hearing that accompanies old age. While reduced ability to hear is frustrating enough, it can also be accompanied by tinnitus as well.
Otosclerosis. A hereditary condition, otosclerosis refers to abnormal ear growth within the middle ear. As the bone stiffens, sufferers may experience tinnitus and hearing loss.
TMJ Disorder. Often marked by pain in the jaw, TMJ Disorder is also occasionally a source of tinnitus.
Benign Tumor. Acoustic neuroma refers to a noncancerous growth along the cranial nerve. This nerve helps regulate balance and hearing, and the presence of the tumor often causes tinnitus in one ear.
Head/neck Injuries. Accidents involving your head and neck can often also cause damage to your ear, brain, or nerves—thus resulting in tinnitus.
Risk Factors for Tinnitus
Tinnitus can affect anyone, but some people are at higher risk of experiencing it than others.
Gender. Men are at higher risk of developing tinnitus than women.
Age. Because hearing loss is a cause of tinnitus, older people are at increased risk.
Cardiovascular Health. Those who suffer high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, or other conditions that impact blood flow are more likely to experience tinnitus.
Noise. Obviously, people who are regularly in noisy environments are more at risk for hearing damage related tinnitus. These include musicians and those who work in manufacturing, construction, and similarly loud industries.
Diagnosis of Tinnitus
Your doctor or audiologist will be able to diagnose tinnitus using several techniques during an examination. Diagnosis also aims to determine the root cause of the tinnitus in order to develop the most appropriate treatment plan for you.
A hearing test is the obvious first step to diagnosing tinnitus. Typically, this involves wearing earphones and identifying when you hear a sound in either ear. The hearing test will help to determine if you are experiencing any hearing loss that may account for your tinnitus.
Additionally, you doctor may examine the movement of your jaw, neck, arms, legs, and eyes in relation to the severity of your tinnitus. These examinations will further help identify the source of your symptoms.
Finally, if necessary, imaging tests (such as an MRI) may be in order. These provide your doctor with a detailed look at the inner ear and the nerves surrounding it. Imaging may help reveal the presence of a tumor, damaged blood vessels, or other physical sources of tinnitus.
During your medical exam, your doctor may ask you to describe the type of sound that you hear. This can help them gain a more accurate diagnosis, as different sounds are caused by different underlying conditions.
High pitched sounds, such as a buzzing or ringing, can be caused by acoustic neuroma, hearing loss, and long term noise exposure.
Low-pitched sounds may be the result of Meniere’s disease, an inner ear condition marked by hearing loss and vertigo.
Humming or something akin to rushing water often signals a vascular cause—especially when the tinnitus is particularly noticeable during exercise or while changing positions.
A heartbeat-like sound may be caused by high blood pressure or a tumorous presence. This is known as pulsatile tinnitus, and occurs when blockage in the ear allows you to hear your pulse more audibly.
It’s important to understand that not every case of tinnitus requires treatment. Most people can get by without it affecting their everyday life in a serious way. However, severe tinnitus can be very debilitating. So you should speak with your doctor if your tinnitus is making life harder for you in any way.
If you do seek treatment, your audiologist will help determine the best way to manage your tinnitus. Because the causes are so varied, no two treatment plans always look the same.
Treating the root cause
Since tinnitus is a symptom and not a disease, your treatment plan may involve taking care of whatever underlying health condition is at the heart of your tinnitus. For example, if it is due to hearing loss, your tinnitus may clear up with the use of hearing aids. Likewise, if excessive blockage is the issue, your treatment may be as simple as removing impacted earwax.
Your treatment may also include behavioral therapies aimed at making it easier for you to acclimate to life with tinnitus. Typically, these therapies involving practicing coping mechanisms as well as strategies to make the
Get Professional Help For Your Tinnitus
If you think you may be experiencing tinnitus, or if your symptoms have gotten to the point that they are interfering in your day to day activities, you don’t have to suffer untreated. 1 in 5 people have tinnitus, so don’t feel like you are alone.
Get in touch with our offices for an in-depth examination. We can help diagnose the root causes of your tinnitus and develop a treatment plan to help you overcome its effects on everyday living.