Tinnitus (pronounced tih-NITE-us or TIN-ih-tus) is sound without an external source that only you can hear. For many, this can present itself as a ringing sound, while for other individuals, it may sound like whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, or roaring.
The source of the sound may seem to come from one ear or both, from inside the head, or from a distant location. It may be constant or intermittent, steady or pulsating. As many as 50 to 60 million people in the United States suffer from this condition; it's especially common in people over age 55 and is very often associated with hearing loss.
While there is no cure for tinnitus, it can become less noticeable and more manageable over time – especially with treatment. If you have a hearing loss, the use of a hearing aid can make tinnitus less noticeable by amplifying outside sounds or providing sound therapy. At Rincalina Hearing Center, our team can help you with solutions to help tune out the static noise of tinnitus and minimize its impact.
Causes of Tinnitus
Most people who seek medical help for tinnitus experience it as subjective, constant sound like constant ringing or buzzing sound in the ear, and most have some degree of hearing loss. Things that cause tinnitus and hearing loss include:
- Loud noise
- Medications that damage the nerves in the ear (ototoxic drugs),
- Impacted earwax
- Middle ear problems
- Meniere's disease (a disorder of the balance mechanism in the inner ear.)
Tinnitus can arise anywhere along the auditory pathway, from the outer ear through the middle and inner ear to the brain's auditory cortex, where it is thought to be encoded. One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the hair cells in the cochlea. These cells help transform sound waves into nerve signals. If the auditory pathways or circuits in the brain don't receive the signals they're expecting from the cochlea, the brain in effect “cranks up the gain" on those pathways in an effort to detect the signal. The resulting electrical noise takes the form of tinnitus, a sound that is high-pitched if hearing loss is in the high-frequency range and low-pitched if it's in the low-frequency range.
If you're often exposed to loud noises at work or at home, it's important to reduce the risk of hearing loss (or further hearing loss) by using protectors such as earplugs or earmuff-like or custom-fitted devices.
Most tinnitus is "sensorineural," meaning that it may be related to hearing loss at the cochlea or cochlear nerve level. But tinnitus may originate in other places. Our bodies normally produce sounds called somatic sounds that we usually don't notice because we are listening to external sounds. Anything that blocks normal hearing can bring somatic sounds to our attention producing symptoms of tinnitus.
Tinnitus that is continuous, steady, and high-pitched (the most common type) generally indicates a problem in the auditory system and requires hearing tests conducted by an audiologist.
Your general health can affect the severity and impact of tinnitus, so this is also a good time to take an inventory of your diet, physical activity, sleep, and stress level and take steps to improve them. You may also be able to reduce the impact of tinnitus by treating depression, anxiety, insomnia, and pain with medications or psychotherapy. In addition to treating associated health problems, there are several strategies that can help make tinnitus less bothersome.
If you have age-related hearing loss, a hearing aid can often make tinnitus less noticeable by amplifying outside sounds. Besides amplifying the sounds around us, many hearing aids also include a tinnitus therapy feature. In very quiet hearing environments, regular hearing aids don’t have enough external sounds to amplify to distract you from your tinnitus. The tinnitus therapy feature works by emitting a customized therapy signal such as a soothing sound like waves rolling into a beach that distracts you from focusing on the ringing in your ears.