Tinnitus, commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears,” is a widespread issue that affects 1 out of 5 Americans. It is the perception of sound despite the absence of any actual sound, and can vary in volume, pitch and frequency. Some people view it as a minor irritation, while others suffer so badly from mental and emotional distress, their quality of life is impacted. Tinnitus has no cure, but symptoms can be managed effectively with a variety of treatment techniques.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom.
It occurs when there is a problem in the auditory system, and can be caused by a variety of conditions. Some of the more common ones include:
- Hearing loss
- Noise exposure
- Ototoxic medications
- Meniere’s disease
- Trauma to the head or neck
- Thyroid disorders
- Earwax buildup
- Heart conditions
- Vascular disorders
- High blood pressure
- Acoustic neuroma (benign tumors)
Tinnitus can affect anybody, but those most at risk are male, older, and smokers. While it is most often described as a ringing sensation in the ears, tinnitus may also resemble a hissing, buzzing, roaring, whooshing, chirping, clicking or whistling noise.
Nobody knows exactly why tinnitus occurs, but it is believed to originate in the neural circuits of the brain cells. Many theories exist: it could be increased sensitivity to sound following the loss of hair cells in the cochlea, a change in the way the brain processes sound, or abnormal interactions between neural circuits.
Side Effects and Treatment
Tinnitus sufferers may experience a variety of side effects including fatigue, memory loss, concentration difficulties, depression, anxiety, irritability and lack of sleep. As frustrating as it may be, sometimes the exact cause of tinnitus remains a mystery. Your doctor may not be able to find a medical condition responsible for the phantom noise.
In some instances, treatment is as simple as removing impacted earwax or switching to a different type of medication. If the underlying condition is unknown or can’t be treated, there are strategies for managing symptoms and helping patients cope with the persistent noise. Some popular treatment techniques include:
- White noise therapy. Soft, pleasant sounds (rainfall, ocean waves) may be used to mask the background noise of tinnitus. There are special electronic devices (or smart phone apps) made specifically for this purpose, though the same effect can be achieved using a fan or air conditioner.
- Hearing aids. Turning the volume on a hearing aid up amplifies external sounds, and may be enough to distract you from the internal noises associated with tinnitus.
- Acoustic neural stimulation. This newer technique relies on a small handheld device that delivers acoustic signals that help desensitize the neural circuits to noise.
- Antidepressants. These and other medications can help reduce symptoms, making it easier to cope with tinnitus.
- Counseling. Counseling programs focus on teaching you to understand what causes tinnitus, and helping you learn to cope with it. Many include relaxation techniques.