Do you hear a constant ringing, pulsing, or buzzing in your ears? You’re not alone. This phenomenon affects more 50 million Americans, and it’s called tinnitus.
Many people don’t realize tinnitus is a common problem, so they don’t know there are ways to minimize its effects. In honor of Tinnitus Week, which is February 4–10 this year, we’re raising awareness of what tinnitus is and ways to manage it.
Often described as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus is described as many things — ringing, pulsing, screeching, hissing, static, buzzing, whooshing, roaring, or even ocean waves. The descriptors are endless, but in over 99% of cases, the chief characteristic is there is no actual external sound source present that is generating the noise.
Though the word “tinnitus” sounds like a disease, it’s actually a symptom of damage to the auditory system. It can be temporary or chronic, and it is often debilitating.
Temporary tinnitus is a result of some sort of irritation to your auditory system, such as the loud noise of a rock concert, too much of certain medications, a physical obstruction in the ear canal, or other issues. Your auditory system might recover within a couple of days after removing the source.
Chronic tinnitus is present all day, every day. For many people, chronic tinnitus is an easily ignored distraction. But for many others, it’s debilitating and can lead to:
- Trouble sleeping
- Mood swings
- Poor concentration
- Economic hardship
Tinnitus indicates a problem in your auditory system. This system, however, is complicated and includes the ear, the auditory nerve (connecting the inner ear to the brain), and the sound-processing parts of the brain. Any number of problems could be the cause of a given case of tinnitus. Common ones include:
- Hearing loss. Both age-related and noise-induced hearing loss result from damage to or breakdown of the hair cells in the inner ear. Damage to such a critical component of the auditory system frequently results in tinnitus.
- TMJ disorders. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects your lower jaw to your skull and sits directly in front of your ears. The TMJ shares nerve connections and ligaments with the middle ear, so injury to any part of the TMJ can result in tinnitus. Resolving the TMJ disorder usually resolves the tinnitus as well.
- Vestibular disorders. The vestibular system enables you to maintain balance, and it’s made up of parts of your inner ear and brain. Vestibular disorders often affect not just your balance but other systems as well. One example of a vestibular disorder is Ménière’s disease, which is caused by a problem with the fluids in your inner ear. This problem affects your balance as well as your auditory system, so it often results in tinnitus.
- Traumatic brain injury. Concussive shock can damage the area of the brain responsible for auditory processing, leading to tinnitus. In fact, mild-to-severe traumatic brain injury accounts for nearly 60% of tinnitus cases diagnosed by the U.S. Veterans Administration.
Testing for Tinnitus
There’s no objective test for tinnitus, but hearing health professional have ways to evaluate and understand its effects on a person.
- Hearing evaluation. Because of the close link between tinnitus and hearing loss, the first step in diagnosing your tinnitus is a comprehensive hearing evaluation. Audiologic evaluation might help identify the cause of your tinnitus as well as any loss in hearing sensitivity that is present.
- Supplemental tests. The hearing evaluation might be followed by a battery of subjective tests designed to measure how you perceive your tinnitus’s volume, sound, and pitch. Clearly understanding how you perceive it will help you and your hearing care professional measure the effectiveness of your tinnitus-management therapies.
Currently, tinnitus doesn’t have a cure. There are, however, proven methods to minimize its effects, including:
- Sound therapy. A tone or a pleasant sound, like ocean waves, masks your tinnitus
- Habituation. A sound matching your tinnitus is played back to you, usually at levels you can’t hear, to try to inhibit your tinnitus
- Hearing aids. Because of the correlation between tinnitus and hearing loss, hearing aids often provide relief
- Combination. Many hearing aids now treat both your hearing loss and your tinnitus through built-in masking or habituation capabilities
If you or someone you love experiences constant ringing, buzzing, or pulsing, contact us today to schedule a consultation!