Do you hear ringing, buzzing, or other phantom noises in your head? It may be tinnitus, which is the perception of noise. According to the American Tinnitus Association, nearly 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus. Tinnitus is actually a symptom of an underlying condition. There are two types of tinnitus. In subjective tinnitus, only you perceive the noises in your head or ear. It can be caused by ear problems in your outer, middle, or inner ear, as well as problems with the auditory nerves or pathways. More than 99% of all reported cases are the subjective type. Objective tinnitus is very rare. It refers to head or ear noises that other people can hear. For example, your doctor may be able to hear it with a stethoscope. It may be caused by a middle ear bone condition, a problem with blood vessels, or muscle contractions.
Tinnitus involves the perception of sound when no external sound is present. Someone with tinnitus may hear noises such as ringing, buzzing, hissing, roaring, clicking or whistling. The noise varies in pitch. You may hear it in both ears or only one. You may hear it all the time, or it may come and go. For many people, tinnitus significantly affects their quality of life. Everyone handles it differently, but in addition to the annoying noise, many people experience stress, fatigue, trouble concentrating, problems with sleep or memory, depression, anxiety, or irritability.
In many cases, an exact cause of tinnitus is never found. Tinnitus is not a disease itself. It is a symptom of an underlying health problem. Tinnitus is often related to other ear problems, conditions that affect the nerves in your ear or the hearing center in your brain, or chronic health conditions. Many medications affect tinnitus, such as antibiotics, cancer medications, diuretics, quinine medications, some antidepressants, and aspirin. Other common causes include:
- Age-related hearing loss. As we age, our hearing gradually worsens, usually beginning around age 60. Hearing loss sometimes causes tinnitus.
- Earwax blockage. Ear wax helps to clean, protect, and lubricate your ears, but sometimes we have too much of it. When too much earwax builds up, it may lead to hearing loss or inflammation of the eardrum, which can cause tinnitus.
- Exposure to loud noise. We live in a noisy world. Loud noise from construction equipment, chainsaws, very loud concerts, and portable music devices can cause tinnitus and in some cases, permanent damage.
- Ear bone changes. A condition called otosclerosis, which is a stiffening of the bones in your middle ear, can affect your hearing and cause tinnitus.
- Inner ear infections
- Eustachian tube dysfunction
- Meniere’s disease. This is an inner-ear condition that causes hearing loss.
Anyone can experience tinnitus, but the following factors may increase your risk:
- Sex. Men are more likely than women to experience tinnitus.
- Prolonged exposure to loud noise.
- Cardiovascular problems.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for most cases of chronic tinnitus at this time. Because no two patients and no two cases of tinnitus are alike, your treatment plan will be unique to you. Treatment depends on the cause of your tinnitus. If an underlying health condition, such as high blood pressure, is causing your tinnitus, your doctor will create a treatment plan. If a particular medication is a problem, the doctor may be able to prescribe an alternative medicine. Usually, once the underlying condition is treated, the tinnitus goes away.
When no specific cause can be identified, your doctor will probably focus on making your tinnitus easier to tolerate. There are many supportive devices and techniques that can be used to reduce its impact on your everyday life. Some possible methods include:
- Hearing aids: Many people who have hearing loss find that a hearing aid is helpful in the treatment of tinnitus.
- Sound generators: Wearable sound generators can create white noise, or constant background noise which masks the tinnitus and helps people sleep.
- Counseling: People who suffer from tinnitus often become depressed or anxious. A counselor and/or a support group can help you cope with your symptoms.
- Tinnitus retraining therapy: The goal of this type of treatment is to teach your brain to ignore the sounds you hear, using a mix of counseling and other approaches.
- Relaxing: In some cases, stress makes the tinnitus worse. Simple relaxation techniques may reduce your stress level.
- Medications: There is no medication that cures tinnitus, but some medications may help reduce the severity of symptoms or complications.
Taking good care of your health and avoiding prolonged exposure to loud noise may reduce your chances of tinnitus. If you are experiencing tinnitus, there are plenty of options to help you manage your condition and improve your quality of life. Your healthcare provider will work with you to develop the best possible treatment strategy. If you are experiencing problems with tinnitus, contact us as soon as possible.
Dr. JJ Martinez served active duty in the United States Marine Corps before receiving his bachelor’s degree from Southeastern Louisiana University in 2005 and his doctoral degree from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in 2010. Dr. Martinez is a fellow of the American Academy of Audiology and a member of the American Speech Language and Hearing Association.