Tinnitus – Why your ears may be ringing

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Tinnitus – Why your ears may be ringing

Imagine having a constant sensation of hearing noise within the ears which could be intermittent or continuous varying in loudness.  If you know what the word “tinnitus” means, you understand the annoying experience of either an intermittent or constant sound of ringing, hissing, whistling, buzzing, or clicking in one or both ears.  Tinnitus is surprisingly more common than you think with up to 10-15% or about 50 to 60 million adults in the United States who have it.  With age, it becomes even more common and is usually associated with hearing loss.  

Tinnitus is one of the more intrusive and sometimes devastating medical anomalies a person can have.  Having a constant or even just every now and then sound within the ear can affect and interfere with a person’s ability to hear, work and sleep.  For some tinnitus is so exasperating they will seek psychological treatment. 

Causes of tinnitus

There can be several reasons for the development of tinnitus which can include:

·      Jaw, head, or neck injury

·      Medications that can damage the nerves in the ear

·      Impacted earwax

·      Middle ear problems such as infections and vascular tumors

·      Aging

·      Vascular or blood flow problems

·      Loud noise such as that experienced at a music concert

·      A symptom of Meniere’s disease which is a disorder of the balance mechanism in the inner ear

·      Onset of a sinus infection or cold

·      Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus

·      Excessive alcohol or caffeine intake exacerbates tinnitus in some people

For some people with tinnitus, it could be short-lived such as after being exposed to extremely loud noises.  For others, tinnitus may be chronic where the symptoms last more than six months. 

Diagnosis of tinnitus

Anyone who develops tinnitus needs to be evaluated by their doctor to help rule out the sources of what is causing it.  A primary care doctor may want you to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist who will examine the ears and hearing in consultation with an audiologist. 

There will most likely be extensive testing to measure hearing, the stiffness of the eardrum and to detect if there is any presence of fluid in the middle ear, in addition to many other tests that can be performed.

Treatment of tinnitus

If tinnitus is due to exposure to loud noise, it will usually resolve itself within time. Chronic tinnitus however does not have a cure and it can be unpredictable.  Sometimes the symptoms remain the same and sometimes they can get worse.  However for many, tinnitus becomes less noticeable and more manageable over time by understanding ways to tune out the noise minimizing its impact.

Because many cases of tinnitus have no identifiable cause, treatment for it can be difficult and time-consuming.  There is no single approach that works for everyone and there could be several combinations of techniques needing to be tried before determining what works best for you.  For those with age-related hearing loss, a hearing aid can often make tinnitus less noticeable by amplifying outside sounds.

Unfortunately, there is no FDA-approved medication treatment for tinnitus nor is there any supplement or herb that has been found to cure it.  What has been found to be most effective are behavioral strategies and sound –generating devices which can often be used in combination.  These include:

·      Masking devices

A masking device can emit sounds obscuring but does eliminating tinnitus noise.  Sometimes hearing aids may be used as a masking device.  Check with your doctor on what is available and what works for you.

·      Tinnitus retraining therapy

This is used to retrain the brain to avoid thinking about tinnitus.  It can be a combination of counseling and a non-masking sound to decrease the contrast between the sound of the tinnitus and the surrounding environment. 

·      Psychological treatments

It is not uncommon for those with chronic tinnitus to have depression or anxiety.  Tinnitus can disrupt concentration, sleep patterns, and participation in social activities.  Consulting with a psychologist or psychiatrist can be helpful for situations like this.

·      Medications

No drug cures tinnitus but some can be effective in treating it psychological effects.

Preventing tinnitus

The best way to avoid even developing tinnitus is to take precautions to lessen the likelihood of it happening.  Here are some ways to do this:

·      Avoid exposure to loud noises

·      Wear ear protection against loud noises at work, mowing the lawn, and avoid listening to loud music

·      Treat ear infections promptly

·      Exercise daily, get adequate rest and keep blood pressure under control