Tinnitus is usually described as “ringing in the ears,” but can also be experienced as roaring, buzzing, hissing or clicking. It can be quiet or loud, high- or low-pitched. It is commonly experienced in both ears, but can also happen in just one. About 10% of American adults experiences tinnitus each year, and it is the #1 affliction affecting veterans returning from active duty.
Causes of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is a symptom, and is not itself a disease. There are a range of underlying causes that can produce tinnitus. Some of the underlying conditions that can cause tinnitus include:
- Earwax blockage
- Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)
- Age-related hearing loss
- Sinus and ear infections
- Cardiovascular disease
- Ménière’s disease
- Brain tumors
- Thyroid problems
- Starting or stopping certain medications
- TMJ issues
Despite this list of underlying conditions, some people also experience tinnitus for no known reason. In fact, a cause is never found in the majority of cases of tinnitus. It is suspected that high stress, even by itself, can cause tinnitus.
Sometimes tinnitus and stress can exist in a feedback loop, where high stress brings on tinnitus, and tinnitus increases stress. For most people, tinnitus is not a serious issue, but complications from tinnitus can include fatigue, depression, anxiety, and memory and concentration issues. In the most severe and persistent cases of tinnitus, it can produce mental and emotional anguish.
Should I See a Doctor About My Tinnitus?
If your tinnitus bothers you, you should see your doctor. Especially if your tinnitus worsens, either over time or very rapidly, you should see your doctor. It’s important to rule out any of the potentially serious underlying causes of tinnitus. If your doctor does not see an immediate cause (such as earwax blockage), they will likely refer you to an otolaryngologist (ENT).
Will It Ever Go Away?
For some people, tinnitus may stop once environmental factors are eliminated or stress is reduced. For others, treating an underlying condition may stop their tinnitus. For many people, tinnitus is a lifelong companion.
Treatments for Tinnitus
Hearing aids are not recommended for tinnitus alone, but if your tinnitus accompanies hearing loss, hearing aids can not only help you hear better but may also help your tinnitus. Simply wearing hearing aids, providing more sound from the environment to the brain, may be enough to stifle the effects of tinnitus. Many hearing aids also have a built-in tinnitus masking program (see below).
In cases where tinnitus is causing real mental anguish, counseling can help you learn to live more comfortably with your tinnitus. The goal is to stop seeing tinnitus as an invader on your personal space, but as a normal part of your life. Meditation can be an important component in counseling for tinnitus.
Acoustic Neural Stimulation (ANS)
A recent development in tinnitus treatment, ANS uses a small device and headphones to play a broadband sound embedded in music. The goal is to retrain the brain’s neural circuits to ignore the tinnitus. Many study volunteers have found the treatment to eliminate or reduce their tinnitus.
Acupuncture has been recommended as a treatment for tinnitus, though there is no verifiable evidence that it is effective. Anecdotally, people have found mixed results when pursuing acupuncture as a treatment method.
Masking is by far the most common and effective treatment for tinnitus. William Shatner, who famously suffers tinnitus since an accidental explosion on the set of Star Trek, has said that masking is the only way he ever gets any relief.
Masking is simply introducing sound into your environment or directly into your ears to cover up the sound of your tinnitus. For many people, normal environmental sounds are enough to mask tinnitus throughout the day, but perhaps not at night when they try to sleep. Turning a fan on in the bedroom, using a white noise machine or other sound generator, or even playing familiar episodes of television can be effective at masking tinnitus in order to get some rest.
Tinnitus Treatment with Hearing Associates, Inc.
At Hearing Associates, Inc., we help patients to better understand and deal with their tinnitus. If you have tinnitus that is bothersome to you and medical causes have been ruled out, our professional staff of audiologists can help you find the best ways to live your life without being dominated by tinnitus.