What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a ringing, buzzing, hissing, swishing, clicking, or other type of noise that seems to originate in the ear or head. Most of us will experience tinnitus or sounds in the ears at some time or another. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), tinnitus is the number one disability among Veterans and it affects at least one in every 10 American adults.
In most cases, tinnitus is not a serious health problem, but rather a nuisance that may go away. Nevertheless, it can be extremely disturbing to those who have it, so much so that it interferes with daily activities and requires medical or surgical treatment.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus is not a disease in itself but rather a reflection of something else going on in the hearing system or brain.
Hearing loss: Probably the most common cause for tinnitus is hearing loss. As we age, or because of trauma to the ear (through noise, drugs, or chemicals), the portion of the ear that allows us to hear, the cochlea, becomes damaged.
Trauma: If tinnitus is caused by trauma to the ear it usually is noticed in both ears, because both ears generally are exposed to the same noises, drugs, or other insult.
Exposure to loud noise: Loud noise exposure is a very common cause of tinnitus today, and it often damages hearing as well.
Medications: Drugs such as aspirin (if overused), aminoglycoside antibiotics (a powerful form of infection-fighting drug), and quinine. More than 200 different drugs are known to have tinnitus as a side effect.
Meniere’s disease: Symptoms include dizziness, tinnitus, and fullness in the ear or hearing loss that can last for hours, but then go away. Tinnitus is merely a symptom.
Acoustic neuroma: This is a rare subjective cause of tinnitus, and includes a certain type of brain tumor known as an acoustic neuroma. This type of the condition usually are only noticed in one ear,
Pulsatile tinnitus: This problem usually is related to blood flow, either through normal or abnormal blood vessels near the ear. Causes of pulsatile tinnitus include pregnancy, anemia (lack of blood cells), overactive thyroid, or tumors involving blood vessels near the ear.
TMJ: Clicking types of objective tinnitus can be caused by TMJ misalignment problems, or “twitching” of muscles of the ear or throat.
What are the treatment options for tinnitus?
Treatment for tinnitus depends upon the cause of the problem. In the majority of cases, tinnitus is caused by damage to the hearing organ. Your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, or an audiologist for further testing.
In instances where tinnitus is extremely bothersome, there are a number of treatment options.
- Some of the most helpful include anti-anxiety or antidepressant
- “Sound therapy” uses external noises to help change a patient’s perception of, or reaction to, tinnitus. These external sounds may mask the tinnitus, or help distract from it.
- Maskers fit into the ear and generate sound soft sounds such as random tones, music, or a “shhhhhh” sound, to help mask the tinnitus.
- Biofeedback may help or diminish tinnitus in some patients.
- Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and can train you to accept the sounds from tinnitus helping you to be less aware of it.
- Avoidance aspirin or aspirin products in large quantities can help.
- Hearing aids may help people when hearing loss accompanies their tinnitus. Hearing aids can be adjusted and make it easier to hear, making tinnitus less noticeable.
- Cochlear implants may be used when hearing loss accompanies tinnitus. Like a hearing aid, these devices can help patients hear outside noises better, which can help mask the sounds.
- A new technique called acoustic neural stimulation helps change the neural circuits in the brain helping desensitize you to the sounds and other signs.
- If tinnitus is caused by TMJ bite realignment or other dental devices may help relieve symptoms.
- Osteopathy, physical therapy, or chiropractic therapy may help ease symptoms.
- In extreme cases, surgeries such as neurectomy (removal of the cochlear nerve) or microvascular decompression (decompressing the cochlear nerve) may be performed to relieve symptoms.
- In cases where the tinnitus is caused by one of the other rare problems (such as a tumor or aneurysm), treatment involves fixing the main issue.
Lifestyle changes to help with tinnitus
Tinnitus doesn’t always improve or completely go away with medical treatment. For those who fall into this category, the goal is not to silence tinnitus, rather, the goal is for patients to learn to self-manage their reactions to the tinnitus. Certain lifestyle adjustments make it easier to self-manage tinnitus.
Examples of ways to treat the symptoms of the problem include:
- Avoid things that may make your tinnitus worse. Common examples include loud noises, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
- A fan, soft music or low-volume radio static may help mask the noise from tinnitus.
- Stress can make tinnitus worse. Decrease emotional stress via stress management techniques such as meditation or exercise.
- Learning as much as you can about tinnitus and ways to alleviate symptoms can help. Understanding tinnitus better makes it less bothersome for some people.
- Take care of your cardiovascular health. Regular exercise, eating right and taking other steps to keep your blood vessels healthy can help prevent tinnitus linked to blood vessel disorders.