FAQs (and answers) About Tinnitus
Usually described as a constant ringing in the ears, tinnitus is a very common disorder, estimated to affect 50 million Americans. While most people do adjust over time, about one-fifth of people who experience tinnitus find it to be debilitating. Tinnitus can lead to insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability, anxiety, depression, and poor work or school performance.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is not a disease; it is a symptom of an underlying problem. The word itself comes from the Latin “tinnire” – which means to ring or tinkle. It can also present as hissing, clicking, or whistling sounds in the ear. What is frustrating about tinnitus is that most of the time, it is a subjective sound, meaning other people can't hear it. It can be temporary or persistent – and it can vary in volume, continuity and pitch.
How does tinnitus happen?
Tinnitus usually occurs after 50 years of age, although children and younger people can experience it, too. Common causes include:
Excessive/cumulative noise exposure
Head and/or neck injuries
TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder—affects joint between jaw and cheek bones)
Foreign object/wax on the eardrum
Certain medications (which can cause or worsen the condition) – large doses of aspirin, for example, can trigger tinnitus
In some cases, cardiovascular disease and/or diabetes
Of these, the most common cause is damage or loss of tiny sensory hair cells in the cochlea. This happens as people age, but it can also happen as a result from extended exposure to loud noise. In these cases especially, tinnitus may coincide with long term hearing loss. High risk factors for tinnitus are noise exposure (from work, headphones, concerts, explosions), smoking, and gender (tinnitus affects more men than women), and age.
What can you do about tinnitus
There is no “cure" for tinnitus, but there are ways to manage it. The key is to determine the underlying cause and treat that. This includes prompt care for an ear infection, discontinuing ototoxic medications (those that have a toxic effect on the ear or its nerve supply), and treating TMJ problems. There are also some specific therapies that have proven helpful for some tinnitus sufferers:
Sound therapy uses external noise to mask the person's perception of the ringing sound, such as low background noise or “white” noise. Awareness of the sound will return when the sound is turned off, but it can help during daily activities like sleeping or working.
Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) retrains the auditory system to accept the abnormal sounds as natural, and not disruptive. This type of therapy requires the guidance of a trained professional, and success is proportionate to severity of the affliction and the person's mental health as a whole. TRT has an estimated 80% success rate.
Biofeedback training is effective in reducing the tinnitus in some patients. It consists of exercises in which the patient learns to control the various parts of the body and relax the muscles. When a patient is able to accomplish this type of relaxation, tinnitus generally subsides. Most patients have expressed that the biofeedback offers them better coping skills.
Other measures to control tinnitus include making every attempt to avoid anxiety, as this will increase your tinnitus. You should make every attempt to obtain adequate rest and avoid over fatigue because generally patients who are tired seem to notice their tinnitus more. The use of nerve stimulants is to be avoided. Therefore, excessive amounts of coffee and smoking should be avoided.
If you are experiencing tinnitus, please visit an audiologist for an examination and evaluation. If you are prepared to answer the following questions, it will help us try and get to the root of your condition:
When/how did it start
Have you had a recent illness or injury?
Have you had a recent exposure to loud noise?
Is it constant, occasional or pulsing?
Have you experienced any loss of hearing or dizziness?
Do you have any pain?
Is your jaw clicking?
If you have a specific question for Dr. Leanne O’Neil Fletcher or Dr. Tiffany Pfleger, please leave it in the comments section and one of our audiologists will be in touch.