Do you have ringing in your ears? Does it sound like a high-pitched sound, crickets, music, voices, a freight train? These experiences are defined as tinnitus. If you have it, you are not alone, some reports claim that close to 90% of people experience tinnitus at some point in their lives. Tinnitus is the perception of a sound in the ears or in the head without the presence of an external source generating the sound. It is important to know that tinnitus by itself is not a disease but often a symptom that is caused by a variety of factors. Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant, subjective (only heard by the person with tinnitus) or objective (can be heard by an examiner as well), and perceived as loud and annoying, or soft and tolerable.
If you have tinnitus, you should be seen by an ENT or audiologist for an evaluation.
TYPES OF TINNITUS
- High pitched ringing
- Low pitched ringing
- Freight Train
CAUSES OF TINNITUS
- Acoustic trauma (loud noise exposure)
- Presbycusis (hearing loss due to old age)
- Meniere's Disease
- Cerumen (earwax impaction)
The current thought process behind tinnitus is that it is caused by the brain - not the ear. It can be odd to think about tinnitus like this because it is "heard" in the ear, but in fact it is caused from the brain and has been documented on fMRI studies. I like to use the analogy of "phantom leg syndrome"; when someone loses their leg, they can still perceive their leg to be where it always way and feel pain for a limb that isn't there! The same thing is happening in the brain with hearing loss. When there is a hearing loss, the brain tries to make up for the loss by creating a sound; that sound is perceived as tinnitus.
Tinnitus is also tied in the brain to the limbic system (emotional part of the brain). This means that tinnitus has the ability to make a person very anxious or depressed. The problem with tinnitus is that the more someone thinks about it, the more they notice it, and often the more they notice it, the worse it becomes. It can be a devastating cycle. There are options for treatment but no treatment is guaranteed to provide 100% success.
While tinnitus has the potential to be a debilitating condition for some people, it is important to note that there is no cure for tinnitus. No over-the-counter or prescribed drugs have proven to eliminate the perception of tinnitus. If someone claims that an over-the-counter drug has helped their tinnitus, it is due to the placebo effect. There are however, numerous studies that have looked at the efficacy of different tinnitus therapy treatments. The goal of tinnitus treatment programs is to reduce the perception and negative reactions associated with tinnitus. Many people have tinnitus but learn to live with it. Other people have tinnitus and it develops into a very debilitating condition resulting to insomnia and depression. Tinnitus treatment programs are geared for the individuals that find their tinnitus debilitating and bothersome.
- Hearing aids - Often, if someone has hearing loss and tinnitus, hearing aids can reduce the sensation of tinnitus. This makes sense because a hearing aid brings in sound to the person's ear. When wearing a hearing aid, many people's report of tinnitus reduce or eliminate.
- Sound Generators - Sometimes, with or without a hearing aid, a sound generator can reduce the sensation of tinnitus. A sound generator looks like a hearing aid but does not pick up any sound, it simply inserts noise into the person's ear, which reduced the sensation of tinnitus in some individuals.
- Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) - This therapy works at primarily habituating tinnitus evoked reactions of the brain and reducing the perception of tinnitus.
- Acupuncture - Sometimes, acupuncture can provide relief from tinnitus.