It’s normal for your ears to ring for a little while after exposure to loud sound but, for some people, that ringing never stops. It isn’t something anyone else can hear and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop it. This is tinnitus.
Tinnitus affects over 50 million Americans and, while it usually occurs after the age of 50, it can affect children and young adults as well. Keep reading to learn more about what tinnitus is, what causes it, and how you can stop it.
What is Tinnitus, Anyway?
In the simplest of terms, tinnitus is the perception of a ringing or hissing in the ear. It is a very common problem, affecting as many as 1 in 5 Americans. Technically speaking, tinnitus is not a condition but a symptom of an underlying health problem. It is commonly linked to age-related hearing loss, injury to the ear, or various circulatory system disorders.
Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no external sound is present. Though it most commonly presents as a ringing sound, it may also sound like the following:
The pitch and volume of the sound can vary, and it may change over time. Tinnitus can affect one or both ears and, in some cases, it can be severe enough to interfere with daily activity. There are two forms of tinnitus – subjective and objective. Subjective is tinnitus that only the sufferer can hear, and it is the most common type. Objective tinnitus is often caused by a blood vessel problem and it is a sound that can be perceived by a doctor upon examination.
What Are the Causes and Risk Factors?
Again, tinnitus is not a condition in and of itself but a symptom of another problem. There are a number of different conditions which can cause or worsen tinnitus and, in many cases, an exact cause is difficult to determine.
One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the cells in the inner ear. The inner ear is lined with tiny hairs that move when exposed to pressure created by sound waves. That movement then triggers the release of an electrical signal that travels through the auditory nerve to the brain where it is interpreted as sound. If these tiny hair cells are damaged, it can cause accidental stimulation of those electrical impulses which turns into tinnitus.
But what causes damage to the hair cells in the ear? Here are some common causes:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Atherosclerosis (clogged arteries)
- Antibiotic medications
- Certain antidepressants
- High doses of aspirin (more than 12 daily)
- Exposure to loud noise
- Smoking or tobacco use
- Severe inner ear infections
- Traumatic brain injury
In most people, tinnitus is caused by age-related hearing loss, exposure to loud noises, an accumulation of ear wax, or changes to the structures of the inner ear. Less common causes of tinnitus include conditions like Meniere’s disease and TMJ disorders. Various head and neck injuries can be a contributing factor as well as tumor growth in the cranial or auditory nerve. Factors like age, gender, smoking, and heart problems can also contribute.
What Can You Do to Stop Your Tinnitus?
When it comes to treating tinnitus, there are a number of different options.
Choosing the right treatment will depending on the type of tinnitus you have as well as its severity.
To start, you’ll need to see your doctor for a hearing exam and to look for underlying conditions which might be causing your tinnitus. You may need some imaging scans or other tests, depending on your doctor’s suspicions.
Because your doctor won’t be able to hear your tinnitus himself (unless it is subjective), you’ll need to be able to tell him what it sounds like. Here are some possible causes for tinnitus based on the different types of sound:
- Low-Pitched Ringing–The most common cause of low-pitched ringing tinnitus is Meniere’s disease – it can also be a precursor to an attack of vertigo.
- High-Pitched Ringing – This form of tinnitus usually results from exposure to a loud noise and it often goes away after a couple of hours. If there is hearing loss as well, it may be permanent.
- Pulsing – If your tinnitus is a pulsing sound like a heartbeat, it is most likely related to blood vessel issues such as an aneurysm, tumor, blockage, or high blood pressure.
- Humming – A rushing or humming sound for tinnitus is usually vascular in origins, especially if it fluctuates with activity or changing position.
- Clicking – If you hear sharp clicking noises in bursts, it is likely caused by muscle contractions in and around the ear.
Once you’ve discussed with your doctor the type of tinnitus sound you hear, he’ll have a better idea what the underlying cause might be and you can then discuss treatment options. Common treatments for tinnitus include the following:
- Earwax removal to clear a blockage
- Medication to resolve blood vessel problems
- A change in medication or adjusting the dose
- Using a white noise machine to cover tinnitus sounds
- Wearing a hearing aid to counteract related hearing problems
- Using a masking device that produces sound to mask the noise
- Tinnitus retraining to help you learn how to ignore the sound
Tinnitus is a tricky condition because it causes symptoms that only you can perceive.
If you are concerned about your tinnitus, take some time to really notice and examine your symptoms so you can provide your doctor with the detailed information he’ll need to make a diagnosis and to recommend a course of treatment.