Tinnitus is the perception of sound without any actual sound. It is more commonly known as “ringing in the ears” or sometimes referred to as “head noise. Tinnitus is not limited to actual “ringing” in the ears, as it can also manifest in the form of buzzing, hissing, pulsing, screeching, the sound of crickets, or even music in some cases. The sound can be heard in either one ear or both ears.
Tinnitus affects 1 in 5 people but the severity varies per case. Since the most common cause of tinnitus is exposure to loud sounds, older adults aged 65 and above have a higher risk of developing tinnitus.
Tinnitus is fairly common; around 10% of people in the US have experienced tinnitus to some degree but in most cases, the sound goes away on its own after a few minutes. If, however, the sound persists, it is best to see an ENT or an audiologist so you can be tested for hearing loss. Your doctor may also test you for other conditions commonly associated with tinnitus.
It is worth noting that Tinnitus itself is not a disease, it is usually a symptom of an underlying condition.
Common Causes of Tinnitus
- Hearing Loss
Majority of hearing loss cases is preceded by Tinnitus. This is true for 90% of hearing loss cases, particularly hearing loss that is noise-induced.
- Exposure to loud noises
Constant exposure to loud noises or a one-time exposure to a very loud sound can cause tinnitus instantly. In some cases, it goes away but it can also become a permanent condition as a direct result of noise exposure.
- Ear Infection
- Foreign objects in the ear
- Ear wax build-up
- Fluid build-up in the ear
- Physical injury, particularly head injuries or trauma
- Diseases such as Meniere’s disease, Anemia, otosclerosis, and acoustic neuroma.
If you experience ringing in your ears or hearing any kind of sound that is not coming from an external source, you should observe its duration. If it goes away after a few hours, then you don’t necessarily need to seek medical help. However, if it does not go away on its own or if you notice other symptoms that come with it, it is best if you seek medical help as soon as possible.
There is currently no treatment for Tinnitus but if the underlying cause is discovered, your doctor may recommend treating the cause, which may then improve your tinnitus or get rid of it completely.
If the underlying cause is not found or if there is no available treatment for the cause, your doctor will recommend ways to manage your condition.
The management plan will depend on the severity of your condition. Most people have mild tinnitus that may be slightly annoying but does not otherwise interfere with their day-to-day lives but for about 2% of Tinnitus sufferers, the sound can be so loud that it can be difficult to concentrate on anything else.
Doctors usually recommend counseling and in some cases, talk therapy to help the person cope with their condition and learn to live with it. There are also devices that can help with tinnitus management including wearable sound generators and tabletop sound generators, which are devices that produce soft, pleasant sounds to cover the tinnitus. These devices can play soft music or other soft sounds that the user is comfortable with.
Those who have severe tinnitus may benefit from a new management technique called acoustic neural stimulation. This technique involves sending broadband acoustic signals to the brain through the use of headphones. While acoustic neural stimulation does not get rid of tinnitus, it can help desensitize people from their tinnitus by stimulating changes in the brain.
Currently, there are no medications that have been proven to help control or ease the loudness of tinnitus but in some cases; doctors may recommend anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants to improve the general mood of the person suffering from tinnitus.
Those who suffer from tinnitus along with hearing loss are usually prescribed with hearing aids. In severe cases, cochlear implants are recommended.
While Tinnitus is not a harmful condition, it can be a debilitating one especially in severe cases. If you frequently experience tinnitus or if your tinnitus has persisted for quite some time, it is best to consult your doctor so that an appropriate management plan can be recommended and to detect any serious condition that may be causing your tinnitus.