What is tinnitus and how do you treat it?

What is tinnitus?

CVH Audiology | Tinnitus Treatment

Tinnitus is the perception of noise or ringing in the ears. A common problem, tinnitus affects about 15 to 20 percent of people. Tinnitus isn’t a condition itself — it’s a symptom of an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, ear injury or a circulatory system disorder.

Although bothersome, tinnitus usually isn’t a sign of something serious. Although it can worsen with age, for many people, tinnitus can improve with treatment. Treating an identified underlying cause sometimes helps. Other treatments reduce or mask the noise, making tinnitus less noticeable.

Tinnitus Symptoms

Tinnitus involves the sensation of hearing sound when no external sound is present. Tinnitus symptoms may include these types of phantom noises in your ears:

  • Ringing
  • Buzzing
  • Roaring
  • Clicking
  • Hissing
  • Humming

The phantom noise may vary in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal, and you may hear it in one or both ears. In some cases, the sound can be so loud it can interfere with your ability to concentrate or hear external sound. Tinnitus may be present all the time, or it may come and go.

When to see a doctor

If you have tinnitus that bothers you, see your doctor.

Make an appointment to see your doctor if:

  • You develop tinnitus after an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold, and your tinnitus doesn’t improve within a week

See your doctor as soon as possible if:

  • You have tinnitus that occurs suddenly or without an apparent cause
  • You have hearing loss or dizziness with the tinnitus

What Causes Tinnitus?

A number of health conditions can cause or worsen tinnitus. In many cases, an exact cause is never found.

A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear hair cell damage. Tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear move in relation to the pressure of sound waves. This triggers cells to release an electrical signal through a nerve from your ear (auditory nerve) to your brain. Your brain interprets these signals as sound. If the hairs inside your inner ear are bent or broken, they can “leak” random electrical impulses to your brain, causing tinnitus.

Other causes of tinnitus include other ear problems, chronic health conditions, and injuries or conditions that affect the nerves in your ear or the hearing centre in your brain.

Common causes of tinnitus

In many people, tinnitus is caused by one of these conditions:

  • Age-related hearing loss. For many people, hearing worsens with age, usually starting around age 60. Hearing loss can cause tinnitus. The medical term for this type of hearing loss is presbycusis.
  • Exposure to loud noise. Loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, chain saws and firearms, are common sources of noise-related hearing loss. Portable music devices, such as MP3 players or iPods, also can cause noise-related hearing loss if played loudly for long periods. Tinnitus caused by short-term exposure, such as attending a loud concert, usually goes away; both short- and long-term exposure to loud sound can cause permanent damage.
  • Earwax blockage. Earwax protects your ear canal by trapping dirt and slowing the growth of bacteria. When too much earwax accumulates, it becomes too hard to wash away naturally, causing hearing loss or irritation of the eardrum, which can lead to tinnitus.
  • Ear bone changes. Stiffening of the bones in your middle ear (otosclerosis) may affect your hearing and cause tinnitus. This condition, caused by abnormal bone growth, tends to run in families.

Risk Factors for Tinnitus

Anyone can experience tinnitus, but these factors may increase your risk:

  • Loud noise exposure. Prolonged exposure to loud noise can damage the tiny sensory hair cells in your ear that transmit sound to your brain. People who work in noisy environments — such as factory and construction workers, musicians, and soldiers — are particularly at risk.
  • Age. As you age, the number of functioning nerve fibres in your ears declines, possibly causing hearing problems often associated with tinnitus.
  • Sex. Men are more likely to experience tinnitus.
  • Smoking. Smokers have a higher risk of developing tinnitus.
  • Cardiovascular problems. Conditions that affect your blood flow, such as high blood pressure or narrowed arteries (atherosclerosis), can increase your risk of tinnitus.

Tinnitus Complications

Tinnitus can significantly affect quality of life. Although it affects people differently, if you have tinnitus, you may also experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Sleep problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Depression
  • Anxiety and irritability

Treating these linked conditions may not affect tinnitus directly, but it can help you feel better.

Diagnosing Tinnitus

Your doctor will examine your ears, head and neck to look for possible causes of tinnitus. Tests include:

  • Hearing (audiological) exam. As part of the test, you’ll sit in a soundproof room wearing earphones through which will be played specific sounds into one ear at a time. You’ll indicate when you can hear the sound, and your results are compared with results considered normal for your age. This can help rule out or identify possible causes of tinnitus.
  • Movement. Your doctor may ask you to move your eyes, clench your jaw, or move your neck, arms and legs. If your tinnitus changes or worsens, it may help identify an underlying disorder that needs treatment.
  • Imaging tests. Depending on the suspected cause of your tinnitus, you may need imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans.

The sounds you hear can help your doctor identify a possible underlying cause.

Treatment for Tinnitus

Treating an underlying health condition

To treat your tinnitus, your doctor will first try to identify any underlying, treatable condition that may be associated with your symptoms. If tinnitus is due to a health condition, your doctor may be able to take steps that could reduce the noise. Examples include:

  • Earwax removal.
  • Treating a blood vessel condition.
  • Changing your medication.
  • Noise suppression
    In some cases, white noise may help suppress the sound so that it’s less bothersome. Your doctor may suggest using an electronic device to suppress the noise. Devices include:
  • White noise machines.
  • Hearing aids.
  • Masking devices. Worn in the ear and similar to hearing aids, these devices produce a continuous, low-level white noise that suppresses tinnitus symptoms.
  • Tinnitus retraining. A wearable device delivers individually programmed tonal music to mask the specific frequencies of the tinnitus you experience. Over time, this technique may accustom you to the tinnitus, thereby helping you not to focus on it. Counseling is often a component of tinnitus retraining.

If you would like to discuss the contents of this article with Candice, please book an appointment at either the Bedfordview or Benoni practice by calling 011 615 3047 or emailing candice@cvhaudiology.co.za

Contents of this article appeared originally on https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tinnitus/symptoms-causes/syc-20350156 and https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tinnitus/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350162