Tinnitus, or ringing in your ears, is an extremely common condition, affecting more than 50 million Americans. But if your ears are ringing, you can’t just assume that’s the extent of the problem. According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), sometimes tinnitus can be a symptom of an underlying health issue. For that reason, it’s important to see an audiologist who specializes in diagnosing and managing tinnitus and its related conditions.
Common Conditions in Patients with Tinnitus
Tinnitus is often the first symptom you’ll notice if you have hearing loss. In fact, it’s very common for patients to experience both conditions simultaneously. One large research project stated that 56 percent of all tinnitus patients reported some hearing loss. In a 2014 survey of the ATA’s membership, 39 percent of respondents said they experienced hearing loss. This connection explains why many patients with hearing loss/tinnitus can be effectively treated with hearing aids.
Ménière’s Disease is a vestibular disorder in the inner ear that can affect hearing and balance. Patients with Ménière’s often experience bouts of mild-to-severe vertigo, along with sporadic tinnitus. It is estimated that approximately .02 percent of the U.S. population (615,000 individuals) has Ménière’s.
Hyperacusis is an abnormal, extreme sensitivity to noise, including ordinary environmental sounds presented at a normal volume. Patients experiencing hyperacusis experience physical pain (as opposed to emotional annoyance) when exposed to sound. Estimates for the prevalence of hyperacusis range from 7.7-15 percent of the population.
Also known as selective sound sensitivity, misophonia is an abnormal negative emotional reaction to specific sounds. Patients with misophonia feel extreme anger, disgust, or fear toward select noises. They may have similar reactions to particular visual stimuli. The prevalence of misophonia is unknown, but it is estimated that 4-5 percent of tinnitus patients experience some form of the condition.
Phonophobia is a fearful emotional reaction specific to loud sounds. The prevalence of phonophobia, both within the general population and the tinnitus population, is unknown.
Depression and Anxiety
Psychiatric issues can be a contributing factor to tinnitus, or tinnitus may be the source of anxiety and depression, especially in those whose tinnitus affects their ability to function on a day-to-day basis. Tinnitus symptoms often generate feelings of despair and anxiety in many patients. Current estimates suggest that 48-78 percent of patients with severe tinnitus also experience depression, anxiety or some other behavioral disorder. At the same time, pre-existing behavioral conditions may make it more likely that the patient will experience tinnitus as a burdensome condition. For example, one large population study suggests that people with generalized anxiety disorder are nearly seven times more likely to experience chronic, burdensome tinnitus.
Other Vestibular Conditions
The vestibular system, which manages balance and spatial orientation, is closely connected with the auditory system, which controls hearing functions. Several structures in the inner ear play key roles in both sensory systems. Damage to one system (as evidenced by tinnitus) is often connected to a vestibular condition.
See an Audiologist for the Correct Diagnosis
Because of the complexity of tinnitus and the underlying problems it may be connected to, it’s important to see an expert in tinnitus evaluation and management. All of the audiologists with our practice have experience with tinnitus. For those with particularly bothersome tinnitus, Susan Smittkamp, Au.D., Ph.D., FAAA, tinnitus and sound sensitivity specialist, uses the latest FDA-cleared treatments to manage it.