Do you live with the sounds of ringing in your ears? While sitting in a quiet place, do you still hear a subtle humming noise? Maybe a slight buzzing follows you to bed at night even though you know your alarm isn’t going off and the fridge isn’t making weird noises?
You could be one of approximately 50 million Americans living with tinnitus. If you hear sounds that others don’t, you’re likely not going crazy. But you might have a condition that’s both audiological (dealing with hearing) as well as neurological (part of the nervous system).
Tinnitus sufferers live with varied symptoms and ranges of severity. In fact, it’s estimated that around 20 million people deal with chronic tinnitus every day. Another two million live with an extreme or debilitating case of it.
While the buzzing, humming, or ringing in the ears may seem obvious to you, those around you can’t hear it. The symptoms can appear suddenly and last only a short while. Other times, in chronic cases, it builds up over time and tends to stick around for a longer visit. The issue can be irritated by ear or sinus infections as well as the buildup of ear wax.
Sound is manufactured by the compression and release of waves of air that your ears pick up. Thanks to the tiny hairs inside your inner ear called stereocilia, these waves are transferred through the ear to the brain where it is transmitted into sounds that we can understand.
If these tiny stereocilia hairs are damaged or trapped into an unnatural position, they are unable to transmit soundwaves properly, resulting in sounds (ringing, whistling, buzzing, etc.) that aren’t actually occurring for others.
Think of wind through windchimes. If the wind chimes hang straight and true, they’ll tinkle together in perfect harmony creating a melodious tune. But if one of the chimes is too high, low, or sits at an angle, it will throw off the whole sequence and the melody won’t sound right.
Tinnitus has been thought to be the result of several different potential situations:
- Exposure to acoustic shock
- Hearing loss due to prolonged exposure to loud noise
- Normal aging process
- Trauma to the head or neck
- Vascular or viral disease
Research has shown that noise-induced hearing loss and the potential for subsequent tinnitus may be related to inflammation that occurs in the area of the brain that processes sound. Inflammation is the body’s natural way of fighting against injuries and infection, though it can cause a whole host of issues as a byproduct of its occurrence.
This neuroinflammation was studied in mice at the University of Arizona and it’s believed that by reducing the inflammation in the auditory cortex of the brain, we may someday use this as a treatment method for tinnitus as well as other issues that result from noise-induced hearing loss. This hearing loss was reported to be associated with higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine molecules. These molecules, known as microglia, activated non-neuronal cells which are located in the primary cortex.
The mice in this study displayed signs that tumor necrosis factor alfa (TNFα) acts as a go-between for issues such as neuroinflammation, synaptic imbalance, and tinnitus. In addition to this finding, researchers also learned that using drugs to block TNFα or a decrease in microglia averted the chances of tinnitus occurring in mice who had hearing loss due to loud noises.
While studies on mice are a long way from human studies, this research has been extremely valuable in that it offers insight to what could be a major contributor to tinnitus as well as other issues related to hearing loss. With this kind of momentum, tinnitus could someday be controllable.
Prior to these medical breakthroughs, there were no tried and true cures for this ringing in the ears. Now there is hope that one day soon those who suffer will have relief from a life full of constant buzzing, humming, ringing, whistling, or whooshing.
This symptom of hearing loss can be caused by working in loud environments, hence the study on mice with noise-induced hearing loss. To minimize your chances of tinnitus or making it worse if you already have symptoms, be sure to protect yourself from loud noises by wearing earplugs or earmuffs.
By continuing these studies, researchers will be able to work to determine if there are other factors that contribute to tinnitus. They will also be able to determine what drugs work best to decrease the inflammation and help to cure tinnitus for those who live with it every day.
If you suffer from the effects of tinnitus, keep your chin up. There is hope that one day soon your hearing can be returned to normal and you’ll be able to enjoy a life free of external noises that no one else can hear. Until then, keep up with your audiological care and see your audiologist for regular checkups.