Tinnitus. Millions of people around the world live with it. Millions more will end up with it. What is it, and what can be done to manage it? Tinnitus is described by medical professionals as a perception of noise; a ringing, buzzing, or other similar noise in one or both ears that people nearby cannot hear.
Roughly 50 million people suffer from this condition in the U.S. alone, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). Of that total, an estimated 20 million are reported to have chronic tinnitus while an additional two million have an extreme or debilitating case.
Tinnitus has several possible causes:
- 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
The situation can be aggravated by a buildup of ear wax, sinus, or ear infections as well as more severe medical conditions. The American Tinnitus Association states that this condition presents itself in multiple ways. It may be constant or irregular in frequency.
Symptoms may be acute and come on quickly lasting only a short time, or classified as chronic, building up over time and lasting for an extended period. Patients also report tonal symptoms, meaning it remains steady and constant or pulsatile, which might mimic the rhythm of the patient’s heartbeat.
According to research at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan, people who suffer from severe tinnitus may also experience bouts of insomnia due to persistent buzzing, hissing, ringing, whooshing, or clicking sounds they are subject to.
The first step is to visit your hearing health professional. They’ll perform a series of tests that might include:
- Audiological (hearing) exam- This often involves being placed in a soundproof area while listening to specific sounds played through earphones. The goal is to indicate which ear you hear the sounds in. The results will then be compared with the results of others your age which are considered within a normal range. This type of test can either highlight or rule out the possibility of tinnitus.
- Imaging- If tinnitus is suspected, an MRI or CT scan can help to pinpoint if there is a major medical cause behind the condition.
- Movement- By observing you move your eyes, neck, arms, and legs, or by clenching your jaw, the resulting effects could help professionals determine whether there is a specific condition causing these symptoms.
You may also be asked what types of sounds you hear. These could help professionals to distinguish potential causes. If you experience a sharp clicking sound, it could be caused by the contraction of muscles within or around the ear. These may occur in bursts of sound that only last a few seconds to as much as several minutes.
Sounds of your heartbeat can indicate problems with blood vessels. These could include high blood pressure, a blockage in the ear canal, an aneurysm, or a tumor. Also, the sounds of humming or rushing noises you may experience during exercises or even movements such as a simple change of position like laying down or standing up can be indicators.
Both low- or high-pitched ringing can offer up their own set of circumstances. A low-pitched ringing that is heard in only one ear could be a sign of Meniere’s disease. It could also be a sign of an impending attack such as vertigo, with the tinnitus increasing in volume before experiencing a sensation of the world around you moving or spinning unusually fast.
A high-pitched buzzing or ringing could be the result of being hit in the head or exposure to very loud noises, both of which often go away on their own within a day. Certain medications, age-related hearing loss, and exposure to loud noises for long periods of time can also contribute to tinnitus. If the ringing or buzzing is accompanied by hearing loss, the condition could be permanent.
While the cause of tinnitus is often never found, there are ways to minimize the effects of the condition. If your health care professional finds that the symptoms stem from an underlying health condition such as a medication you take or if there is an impaction of earwax, it can be remedied simply by changing a prescription or having an outpatient procedure to remove the wax. For things a bit more serious like a blood vessel or vascular conditions, surgery may be required for treatment.
There may be cases where providing a background noise or removing background noise can be helpful in masking the effects of tinnitus. By utilizing hearing aids, they can help reduce the irritating buzzing background noise while letting in the sounds you want to hear.
Devices that mask the sounds of buzzing, which are much like hearing aids, can offer an on-going low-level white noise that basically masks the buzzing or ringing sounds that are usually heard. Machines that produce white noise such as ocean waves, the wind blowing through the trees, or falling rain are also being utilized as a successful treatment for those with tinnitus.
There are also home remedies and lifestyle remedies that can be explored. Air conditioners, fans, dehumidifiers, or humidifiers are some of the items found around the home that can provide relief. Avoiding certain irritants can also help reduce symptoms. Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and exposure to loud noise can all play a part in managing tinnitus.
Another area that has been known to contribute to tinnitus is stress. By managing your stress levels such as with exercise, meditation/relaxation, or therapy you can help reduce the effects of the condition. Alternative medicine has been explored such as acupuncture, hypnosis, and supplements, though there is little evidence of it having consistent positive results.
By seeking out the assistance of a hearing health professional, you’re taking the first step in helping yourself or a loved one to learn to cope with tinnitus. With their help, you can become educated on the condition, find potential reasons behind its occurrence as well as potential solutions. They can refer you to support groups or counselors who can help you learn techniques to lessen the effects tinnitus can have on your daily life.