Tinnitus awareness week is March 7-13, but If you experience a constant ringing, buzzing or sound in your ears, tinnitus is probably something you don’t need to be reminded of. In fact, according to the American Tinnitus Association, nearly 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Approximately 20 million people have what’s called chronic burdensome tinnitus, and 2 million have extremely debilitating tinnitus, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
What is tinnitus?
The American Tinnitus Association defines tinnitus as the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. While it is often referred to as “ringing in the ears,” everyone’s tinnitus experience is different. Common descriptions include buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, chirping and clicking. For some, tinnitus can be a temporary condition, but for others, it can be an ongoing problem.
There are two types of tinnitus—subjective and objective tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus is a sound that only the individual can hear. More than 99% of all tinnitus cases are classified as subjective. Objective tinnitus is extremely rare, but can be head or ear noises that can be heard by other people, such as sounds produced by the body’s circulatory system (blood flow).
What causes tinnitus?
Damage to the inner ear is the most common cause of tinnitus. This damage can occur from a number of sources, like exposure to very loud sounds throughout your life, or age-related hearing loss. Even something as simple as excess earwax also can cause tinnitus. In very rare cases, underlying medical conditions can cause tinnitus.
Other possible but less common causes include:
- Head and neck trauma
- Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
- Sinus pressure
- Traumatic brain injury
- Prescription medications, including certain antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
Stress and fatigue also have been shown to affect tinnitus. It’s important to make time to relax and reduce your stress levels. Work with your audiologist to find a good support network, discover ways to reduce stress, and practice relaxation techniques.
Can tinnitus be treated?
If you’ve “Googled” tinnitus, you’ve no doubt seen a number of ads that tout miracle cures. Unfortunately, there is no cure for tinnitus (unless there is an underlying medical condition that is treatable), so if you see something promoted as such, just know that it’s unproven and unrecognized by the mainstream medical community. This includes supplements and vitamins.
That said, there are some very effective strategies to manage tinnitus. Tinnitus management begins with a thorough assessment of your hearing, including a case history, hearing evaluation, and determination of tinnitus awareness and disturbance levels through subjective tinnitus rating scales and measurements performed in a sound booth. This assessment gives the audiologist an accurate picture of the type and severity of your tinnitus. It also establishes a reference point, and can assist in determining recommendations and other possible referrals.
Many types of sound therapy are available to promote habituation (desensitization) to tinnitus. For many patients, the initiation of sound therapy quickly brings relief from symptoms. With continued use, sound therapy can ultimately reduce the tinnitus awareness and disturbance. An audiologist can help determine which type of sound therapy may be most helpful for you.
For many patients with tinnitus, the latest digital hearing aids may be particularly useful in managing tinnitus. Some hearing aids include supplemental sound generator functionality (white noise or other sounds, such as chimes, played directly into the ear) that help reduce the perception of tinnitus.
This makes it more difficult to consciously perceive tinnitus and helps the brain focus on outside, ambient noises. The impact of hearing aids is particularly strong for patients who have hearing loss in the same frequency range as their tinnitus.
Hearing aids also help by augmenting the external volume of activities such as a conversation, watching television or talking on the phone, above the perceived volume of tinnitus. As a result, these individuals may feel less personal frustration and social isolation.
Comprehensive Tinnitus Care
Other options for sound therapy may be self-directed, and can include devices such as music players, tabletop sound generators, and other masking devices. Lifestyle changes such as limiting noise exposure, use of hearing protection, incorporation of stress management and relaxation strategies, diet, and medications may also affect your tinnitus.
In most cases, a comprehensive tinnitus management plan that incorporates many of these strategies provides the best relief for patients.
Susan Smittkamp, Au.D., Ph.D., has a special interest in assisting patients with hearing loss and tinnitus, and/or sound sensitivity. She has advanced training in hearing aid technology, as well as in the most current therapeutic technologies for tinnitus and/or sound sensitivity.
She is a member of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA), holds a certificate of clinical competence in audiology from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), is a member of the Kansas Speech-Language-Hearing Association (KSHA), and the Tinnitus Practitioners Association.
If tinnitus is disrupting your daily life, it’s time to do something about it. Schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist and see if additional assistance is needed.