What is Tinnitus?
tinnitusIf you’ve ever attended a concert or been on a bus for hours with the music blaring, or worked with noisy equipment like a chainsaw, you may have experienced a ringing in your ears. Tinnitus, can also sound like buzzing, whistling or humming. It can happen in one or both ears and may come and go or be consistent. For most of us the sound goes away after a while, but according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 10-20% of the population has ongoing, chronic tinnitus.

Depending on its severity, tinnitus can have serious effects on a patient’s quality of life. A study by Härter et al. (2004) found that patients with severe tinnitus usually experience a high degree of anxiety and depression and a low quality of life. Tyler and Baker (1983) found that tinnitus is associated with numerous complaints including irritability, depression, inability to relax,  sleep and concentration problems.

What Causes Tinnitus?
Aside from the common ringing in the ears caused by loud noise, there can be underlying causes that often result in long-term tinnitus.

Some common causes:

  • Exposure to loud noise
  • Age-related hearing loss, known as presbycusis.
  • Earwax blockage
  • The Mayo Clinic describes a condition known as otosclerosis, which is a stiffening of the bones in the middle ear that can cause tinnitus. This tends to be genetic.
  • Any kind of head or neck trauma can trigger tinnitus along with other symptoms like vertigo and headaches.

Less common causes:

  • Meniere’s Disease—tinnitus can be an early warning sign of this inner ear condition, which causes vertigo (dizziness) and some hearing loss.
  • TMJ disorders—the temperomandibular joint is in front of your ear on each side of the head. Any problem with the TMJ can cause ringing in the ears.
  • Acoustic Neuroma—this is a benign tumor on the cranial nerve in the inner ear. This usually causes tinnitus in only one ear.

Some types of medication can cause tinnitus. According to the American Tinnitus Association, some medications are ototoxic, toxic to the ear. Other drugs may produce tinnitus as a side effect. Medications that may cause or worsen tinnitus include some antibiotics, some cancer medications, water pills, quinine, some anti-depressants and even high dosages of aspirin.

How is Tinnitus Diagnosed?
Well, for starters, you’re hearing a ringing in your ears. If it doesn’t go away after a short period of time, a doctor’s visit is in order. The first test will probably be an audiological (hearing) exam to identify possible causes. The doctor may ask you to move your arms and neck clench your jaw and try other types of movements to determine cause. He may also recommend imaging tests like a CT scan or MRI.

The type of sounds you hear can also aid in diagnosis and the Mayo Clinic lists possible causes for different sounds.

Treatment & Symptom Relief for Tinnitus
For the most part, there aren’t any cures for tinnitus unless there’s an underlying condition that can be treated, for instance, the removal of earwax or treatment of vascular conditions. But there are ways to alleviate it. The most common solution is to reduce or mask the noise.

Hearing Aids & Tinnitus Relief
If you also experience some hearing loss, hearing aids have been shown to reduce tinnitus. Studies have shown that as many as 70-80% of people with some hearing impairment also experience tinnitus. many hearing aids not only improve hearing, but also relieve the symptoms of tinnitus.

There are several possible explanations for the effectiveness of hearing aids in cases of tinnitus. Some studies suggest that the amplification itself reduces tinnitus symptoms: it increases neural activity and reduces the focus on internal sounds.

Tinnitus can have as many negative effects on your emotional and physical well-being as well as hearing loss. If you’ve been reluctant to try hearing aids, relief from tinnitus could be a welcome and surprising benefit.

Masking devices
White noise machines and in-ear masking devices are also effective. These produce low-level continuous white noise that can reduce tinnitus. Some people are helped by simple solutions like running an air conditioner, humidifier or fan, or by playing music in the background.

What Can I Do to Prevent Tinnitus?
While you probably can’t prevent tinnitus caused by underlying conditions, you can be mindful of the noisy world around us. Constant exposure to loud noise can cause that ringing in your ears as well as damage your hearing. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has a helpful chart of the noise levels of various everyday sounds. You may be surprised by how loud our daily life is. If you’re frequently exposed to high decibel levels, it’s a good idea to protect your ears with ear plugs or ear muffs, frequent breaks from the noise and lowering the sound level whenever possible.