Why You Should Pay Attention to That Ringing in Your Ears

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have extreme and debilitating cases.

What does tinnitus sound like and what can you do about it? Usually, tinnitus is a sound that only the individual can hear. People often describe tinnitus as buzzing, ringing, white noise, crickets chirping and/or a roaring sound.

Although these descriptions are typical, each individual’s experience can be different, and is an important clue that you need to pay attention to your hearing. According to research published in the American Journal of Medicine, 90 percent of individuals with tinnitus also have hearing loss.

Many times, the tinnitus and hearing loss are caused by damage to the nerve cells within the inner ear. This damage can occur from a number of sources, including exposure to excessively loud sounds, health conditions like diabetes, and medications that damage the ear. Tinnitus also can be caused by impacted ear wax. In very rare cases, underlying medical conditions may cause tinnitus.

For those whose tinnitus is milder and is connected to some level of hearing loss, hearing aids may be an effective way to manage the condition, improving the patient’s hearing and reducing the tinnitus for several reasons.

First, hearing aids can supplement the volume of external noise to the point that it covers, or masks, the sound of tinnitus. This makes it more difficult to consciously perceive tinnitus and helps the brain focus on outside, ambient noises. The masking impact of hearing aids is particularly strong for patients who have hearing loss in the same frequency range as their tinnitus.

Second, increasing the volume of external noise also increases the amount of auditory stimulation received by the brain. There may be benefits to stimulating the brain’s auditory pathways with soft background sounds that might not otherwise be heard.

Third, loud tinnitus can make it difficult — or even impossible — for people to take part in regular communication and social activities: follow a conversation, talk on the phone, watch television, listen to the radio, etc.

Hearing aids help by augmenting the external volume of these activities above the perceived volume of tinnitus. As a result, these individuals may feel less personal frustration and social isolation.

The latest digital hearing aids, with open-fit designs and patient-customized hearing loss profiles, may be particularly useful in managing tinnitus. Moreover, many newer hearing aids include supplemental sound masking functionality (white noise or other artificial ambient sound, such as chimes, played directly into the ear) that further covers the perception of tinnitus.

Like most tinnitus management options, hearing aids may work best when paired with a structured tinnitus education program and some form of patient counseling.

It is estimated that 2 million people have tinnitus so severe they cannot function “normally” on a day-to-day basis. All of the audiologists with Associated Audiologists can help patients with tinnitus. In unique or special cases, our tinnitus specialist, Susan Smittkamp, Au.D., Ph.D., C.C.C.-A.,Tinnitus and Sound Sensitivity manager, can provide additional support, resources and treatment.

Dr. Smittkamp, also sees patients with hyperacusis, a disorder of loudness perception, and misophonia, the dislike of specific sounds. Both of these conditions may be caused by a dysfunction of the central auditory system in the brain.

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