Tinnitus is a hearing condition in which people hear sounds, hisses, or hums that do not have a specific source. This can be regular or sporadic, gentle or loud and can be heard in one or both ears or "inside the brain."
A lot of people learn to live with their tinnitus, but others consider it an inconvenience to live with. For a few, the sounds are so disruptive that it begins to impact their everyday life.
There are two significant forms of tinnitus:
- Subjective tinnitus, which can be heard only by you – this is the most common type.
- Objective tinnitus, which a doctor can hear while inspecting your ears, can be caused by an issue with your blood vessels or with your ear's bones or muscles.
In some instances, people hear sounds that appear to come and go in time with their heartbeats. This is called pulsatile tinnitus.
About 30 million Americans suffer from tinnitus. Some 13 million Americans report tinnitus without hearing loss, but it is usually associated with a degree of hearing loss. The prevalence of tinnitus is roughly 27 percent of people aged 65 to 84.
People usually develop tinnitus once their auditory system is weakened.
It can start due to internal ear damage and is produced by the brain, not the ear itself.
If no sound is present in the real world, a damaged inner ear deprived of sound will send signals to the brain, producing the sounds we know as tinnitus.
There are many causes, but the most common is continual exposure to heavy industrial noise or loud music. Tinnitus may occur both to adults and children, but older adults have a higher risk of developing tinnitus due to age-related hearing loss.
Other causes of tinnitus include:
- ear wax
- exposure to excessive noise
- ear infections
- head trauma
- Ménière's disease
- certain drugs
And sometimes, it is not clear where the tinnitus is coming from.
There is no cure for medical or surgical tinnitus, but successful strategies are available to help you handle it.
Sound therapy, such as music or white noise, may help the brain adapt to the tinnitus by masking the sounds and reducing their prevalence to the background.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help people learn how to manage tinnitus-related negative thoughts and reduce stress and anxiety.
Finally, calming techniques such as meditation or awareness have been instrumental for some in helping them learn to live with the tinnitus and tolerate it.
As mentioned earlier, hearing loss is the most widespread cause of tinnitus, and research has shown that hearing aids could minimize tinnitus discomfort significantly.
How do they do this?
Firstly, your brain gets more sound stimuli when you have hearing aids and thus doesn't need to check for sounds internally. That has the effect of lowering tinnitus levels.
Secondly, when you have a hearing impairment, the brain is exposed to extra cognitive load when attempting to listen and understand the voice. This strain can generate stress, which increases the tinnitus symptoms. Hearing aids could significantly improve your listening abilities, lowering the burden on the brain while trying to listen to sounds. It can result in a reduction in your overall stress level and a significant reduction in tinnitus symptoms.
Many modern models of hearing aids also have a tinnitus sound generator, which acts as a sound therapy program. These tinnitus sound machines play out to hearing aids explicitly with external noises like white noise and pink noise. This has the effect of masking the sound, much like sound therapy does. Although the tinnitus is still there, you become less aware of it.
When should I see my doctor?
Speak to your doctor if you believe that you may have tinnitus, particularly if the sound is getting louder, disrupting your sleep or concentration, or you think that tinnitus may be pulsatile.
The doctor can test your ears and check for an underlying, treatable cause. They can also refer you to a hearing specialist such as us.
If you have tinnitus that is causing your distress, contact us. We have several therapies to help you manage your symptoms and help you get past the never-ending noise.