Tinnitus happens when you experience ringing or other noises in one or both of your ears, such as ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, humming, or other sounds. The noise you hear when you have tinnitus isn't caused by an external sound, and other people standing beside you usually can't hear it. It is one of the most common health conditions in the world, affecting between 15% to 20% of people globally. The severity of tinnitus can range from mildly annoying to severely debilitating. It is a common problem that affects people of all ages, and can be temporary or chronic.
The underlying causes of tinnitus are not fully understood, but are thought to involve changes in the auditory system, including the auditory nerve, brainstem, and higher-level auditory centers in the brain. Tinnitus can be caused by a variety of factors, including exposure to loud noise, age-related hearing loss, ear infections, head or neck injuries, certain medications, and other medical conditions.
Symptoms of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is often described as ringing in the ears, even though no external sound is present. The sound you may hear are:
It may be constant, or it may come and go. The type and intensity of noise varies from person to person. It can be high-pitched, deep, low-pitched or even a tone that changes.
What Causes Tinnitus?
The short answer is that we're not entirely sure yet, but it is often caused by damage to the hair cells in the inner ear, which can lead to a decrease in the ability to hear certain frequencies. This can cause the brain to compensate by producing the phantom noise associated with tinnitus. However, we also know that tinnitus has been linked to a wide range of health conditions, which includes, but not limited to:
- Age-related hearing loss
- Traumatic brain injury
- Injury to the ear
- Severe viral infection
- High blood pressure
- Exposure to traumatic levels of noise
Tinnitus can develop in people of all ages and walks of life. People who are either older or have frequent exposure to loud noises, such as construction noises, gunshots, loud music are at higher risk. Some medications may also cause tinnitus as a side effect. The unwanted ringing may sometimes dissipate when the drug is stopped. However, halting a prescription without consulting your doctor can be dangerous, so ensure you discuss with them first if you think a medication may be causing your tinnitus.
You may also experience tinnitus due to an ear infection or canal blockage. An ear infection is caused by a virus or bacteria that creates fluid buildup in the eardrum. As a result, you may experience pain and swelling, causing permanent damage in the process. Similarly, your ears could also be blocked by excessive wax, dirt, or other debris. All of these possibilities will result in increased pressure in this confined area, which leads to tinnitus.
Is Tinnitus Treatable?
There is currently no cure for tinnitus, but various treatments and strategies can help to manage the condition and reduce its impact on daily life. Here are some of the most common treatments:
Sound therapy is a treatment approach that aims to alleviate tinnitus by using external sounds to manage the phantom noise associated with tinnitus. Sound therapy can take many forms, including white noise, music, or nature sounds, and can be delivered through a variety of devices such as sound machines, hearing aids, or smartphone apps. The goal of sound therapy is to provide a soothing and distracting background sound that can reduce the contrast between the tinnitus and surrounding silence, making the tinnitus less noticeable.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT):
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that can help alleviate tinnitus by addressing the negative thoughts and emotions that can exacerbate tinnitus symptoms. The goal is to identify negative thought patterns and develop strategies for managing these thoughts and associated emotions, which helps the person to change their reaction towards tinnitus. This can include relaxation techniques, cognitive restructuring, and exposure therapy.
While there is no medication specifically designed to cure tinnitus, some medications can help reduce the symptoms of tinnitus, such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and some types of anticonvulsants. For example, medications that improve blood flow, such as vasodilators, may also be helpful in cases where tinnitus is caused by poor blood circulation.
When the brain receives less sound input due to hearing loss, it can generate its own sound to compensate, leading to tinnitus. By amplifying external sounds through hearing aids, individuals can reduce the contrast between the tinnitus and surrounding sound environment. This can help reduce the perception of tinnitus and make it less noticeable. Some modern hearing aids also offer specific features designed to address tinnitus, such as white noise or other sound therapy options.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT):
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) is a type of therapy that combines sound therapy and counseling to help individuals with tinnitus habituate to the sound and reduce their perception of it. It works by using a device that plays low-level noise or music, which is customized to match the frequency and loudness of the individual's tinnitus to reduce the contrast between the tinnitus and the surrounding sound environment. The device is worn for several hours a day, and over time, the brain learns to perceive the tinnitus as a background noise, rather than a disturbing sound.
By reducing exposure to loud noise, managing stress through exercise and relaxation techniques, avoiding stimulants like caffeine and alcohol, getting adequate sleep, and maintaining a healthy diet, individuals can help reduce the severity of their tinnitus symptoms. These lifestyle changes can also complement other treatment approaches, such as medication, sound therapy, or counseling.
Tinnitus can be a distressing and isolating condition, but living with tinnitus is possible. With appropriate management and support, many people with tinnitus are able to live well and maintain their daily activities. It is important for individuals who experience tinnitus to seek medical evaluation and treatment, as well as support from family and friends.
How Are Hearing Loss and Tinnitus Related?
Hearing loss and tinnitus are often interconnected. In fact, tinnitus is a common symptom of hearing loss. When there is a hearing loss, the brain may compensate for the lack of sound input by generating its own sound, resulting in tinnitus.
Hearing loss can be caused by a variety of factors, such as aging, exposure to loud noise, ear infections, and certain medications. Depending on the severity of the hearing loss, the brain may generate tinnitus to compensate for the reduced sound input.
Similarly, tinnitus can also cause hearing loss. When tinnitus is severe, it can interfere with an individual's ability to hear external sounds, leading to reduced sound input and potentially contributing to hearing loss over time.
It is important to note that not all cases of tinnitus are caused by hearing loss, and not all cases of hearing loss are accompanied by tinnitus. Given the discomfort, people tend to blame their tinnitus rather than the hearing loss on their hearing difficulties. It's best to consult with a hearing care professional to determine the best treatment options for individual needs.