What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the presence of noises in the ears or head, and affects an estimated 50 million Americans. Patients with tinnitus often describe what they hear as a ringing, buzzing, humming, chirping, electrical sound, roaring, rushing air or water, among other descriptors. Tinnitus may be constant or intermittent, masked by environmental sounds or audible all day, and is often worse with fatigue, stress, or following exposure to loud noise.

How many people have tinnitus?

An estimated 30 million Americans have tinnitus. Forty percent have it 80 % of their day. One in four people with tinnitus describe it as “loud” and one in five say their tinnitus is “disabling.” Tinnitus affects people of all ages. Twenty-seven percent of seniors age 65 to 84 have tinnitus.

What causes tinnitus?

There are many causes of tinnitus. Some are easily treated such as removal of impacted ear wax in the outer ears or treatment of middle ear infections. For some people, though, tinnitus can begin “out of the blue” with no apparent connection to illness or injury. Others notice a connection, with the onset immediately following a blow to the head, attendance at a loud concert, or administration of a strong antibiotic or chemotherapy. Often tinnitus may be reported by patients with many years of exposure to music, military history, or loud occupational history.

Do any health issues contribute to hearing loss and tinnitus?

Many chronic health conditions can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus, such as hypertension, thyroid problems, diabetes, vascular disorders, and autoimmune diseases. Very strong antibiotics and certain chemotherapeutic agents can cause tinnitus.

What structure is creating tinnitus?

Tinnitus may arise from different structures in the ear and head. It may come from the cochlear, or inner ear, occuring in the hair cells. It also may be generated by the auditory or hearing nerve or the part of the brain that interprets incoming sound, the auditory cortex. Some people hear it in one ear, others in both ears, and still others somewhere in the head.

What if my physician does not find a cause for tinnitus?

Regardless of whether or not your physician determines the cause for your tinnitus, there is still help.

How is tinnitus treated?

Tinnitus may be the first indicator of damage to the ears or auditory system. There is no universal tinnitus solution. It is important to get an audiologic assessment and tinnitus evaluation to determine if medical management can change the presence of tinnitus. If tinnitus has been present for a long time, the goal may be to help the person cope with and reduce the annoyance of the sound. There are different ways to do this such as tinnitus maskers, hearing aids, or Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. In some cases a referral of a mental health counselor can be appropriate for patients who feel that tinnitus has created a significantly negative impact in their lives and are having difficulty coping. Some patients are guided through a medical approach that may include medications and surgery.

Will tinnitus keep getting louder?

Each patient is unique. There are no guarantees. Some people can experience a change in the volume while others do not. A change in hearing does not necessarily cause a change in loudness of tinnitus. One way to try to keep tinnitus from getting louder is to do everything to prevent further hearing loss, through use of hearing protection in all noisy settings.

How can tinnitus be prevented?

Wearing hearing protection during all noisy settings helps to prevent further hearing loss and tinnitus. Simple foam roll-up hearing protectors can help many people. There are specialized hearing protectors for intense noise, such as occupational exposure or hunting. The latter can be very damaging even though there may be few incidences of firing of one’s firearm, due to the properties of impact noise and their affects on the ears. These special protectors allow conversation and listening to surroundings while automatically protecting instantly from gunfire. Musician’s plugs, both custom and non-custom, are available to help people hear all the sounds of music and speech while limiting the intensity of the music.

My ears never hurt when I attend a loud concert or work with power tools, so I’m not causing any damage to my hearing, right?

Actually, noise-induced hearing loss usually causes no pain, so a physical sensation is not a good indicator of whether someone has been exposed to intense sound. Typically only blasts of sound, such as explosions, will cause pain, hearing loss, and tinnitus. It is best to prevent the problem in the first place. Everyone, no matter what age, should wear hearing protection to concerts, for use with power tools, and when using home devices such as hair dryers and vacuum cleaners. People with hearing loss may be more susceptible to damage from noise; a hearing loss does not insulate the ears from further damage. Hearing loss from noise exposure is usually gradual so the individual cannot assess the change in his or her hearing. Again, the best policy is to wear hearing protection in all noisy settings. Carrying foam or custom ear protection in your car or purse, available at drug stores, sporting good stores, and home repair stores, works well so you are never without when needed.

Where can I get custom hearing protection?

You can get custom hearing protection from your audiologist. He or she can help you decide the best devices for your sound environment to help prevent further loss and further tinnitus.