Tinnitus is a common condition that many people experience, especially if you've been exposed to loud noises. But what exactly is tinnitus, and is it something to be concerned about? In this article, we'll break down tinnitus in a way that's easy to understand.
Is Tinnitus Real?
Tinnitus is real. It's not just in your head. It's a "sound" that you hear, but others might not be able to hear it. There are two main types: subjective tinnitus and objective tinnitus. When doctors look at your brain using MRI scans, they can see activity in the part of your brain responsible for hearing, which proves that tinnitus is a genuine perception of sound.
Is Tinnitus a Disease?
Tinnitus is not a disease, but rather a symptom of an underlying issue, just like how arm pain can be a symptom of a broken bone. It's crucial not to ignore or underestimate tinnitus, as it can sometimes signal more significant health problems. Here are some situations when you should definitely seek help when:
- you have persistent tinnitus
- you hear tinnitus in only one ear
- tinnitus is accompanied by dizziness or balance problems
- tinnitus is interfering with your daily life
Which Type of Tinnitus Do You Have?
There are four main types of tinnitus, and they can be temporary or permanent. Let's explore each one:
Subjective tinnitus is the most common type, accounting for 95% of cases. It's a sound only you can hear, and it often results from exposure to loud noises. This type of tinnitus is closely linked to hearing loss. When the tiny hair cells in your inner ear are damaged, your brain compensates by creating sounds, which you perceive as tinnitus. It can appear suddenly and last for a few months or even a year or more.
Objective Tinnitus is the only form that can actually be heard by someone else if they put their ear very close to yours, or it can be heard by a doctor using a stethoscope. It is the rarest form, and thought to be caused by involuntary muscle contractions or vascular deformity. Patients with this type often describe it as a “pulsing” sound occurring in time with their heartbeat. This kind of tinnitus is commonly connected to cardiovascular issues, such as damaged blood vessels or a heart murmur. The root cause can usually be identified and treated successfully with surgery or other medical treatment. Pulsatile tinnitus, or hearing one’s heartbeat in the ear, can in rare cases signal a serious medical complication and should be evaluated medically right away if it occurs frequently.
Neurological tinnitus is caused by a disease that affects your nervous system, such as Meniere’s disease. Patients with this form also tend to experience dizziness, vertigo and balance issues. While doctors can treat the underlying cause to bring some relief, there is usually no cure, and so the tinnitus will likely be permanent.
Somatic tinnitus results when the sensory signals coming from various parts of your body are disrupted, causing a spasm that produces tinnitus. Somatic is from the Greek meaning “of the body”, and somatic tinnitus is defined as tinnitus which is caused, worsened, or otherwise related to your body’s own sensory system. People with this type of tinnitus often have it in only one ear, and it can vary dramatically throughout the day. Depending on whether a root cause can be diagnosed, your ENT doctor may be able to come up with an effective treatment plan.