What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is most commonly described as “ringing in the ears”—a high-pitched whine that is not caused by an external sound source. While this form of tinnitus constitutes the vast majority of cases, the term “tinnitus” is an umbrella that covers any sounds that are experienced subjectively but lack an external source. These might include clicking, rushing, humming, screeching, or low-pitched ringing.
Tinnitus is not a disease in itself, but a symptom which can come from a number of underlying causes. While about 15% of people experience tinnitus, it is rare for an underlying cause to be identified with surety. The most common form of tinnitus—high-pitched ringing—can stem from exposure to loud noise, hearing loss, certain medications, or acoustic neuroma.
Some people are not bothered by tinnitus, while others may be debilitated by it. The more extreme the tinnitus, the more likely a person is to have a stronger negative reaction to it. Some people have trouble sleeping as a result of tinnitus, and may be distracted during the day.
Medical Treatments for Tinnitus
In cases where an underlying cause can be established, a doctor or surgeon may be able to successfully treat tinnitus. While it is less common, some cases of tinnitus may be caused by anomalies such as:
- Excess Earwax - Earwax that builds up deep inside the ear canal can produce tinnitus. When the earwax is removed, the tinnitus may subside. It is worth noting that, most of the time, earwax does not need to be removed but should be allowed to evacuate the ear canals on its own, through the acts of talking and chewing. You should never insert an object into your ear—this can push earwax deeper into the canal or potentially perforate the eardrum.
- Blood Vessel Condition - Those who experience tinnitus as a rushing, humming or pulsing sound—especially when exercising, lying down, or standing up—may experience their tinnitus due to high blood pressure or another blood vessel issue. In treating the blood vessel condition, tinnitus may subside.
- Changing Medications - Especially if your tinnitus started when you went on a new medication, it may be possible to identify a prescription or OTC medication as the underlying cause of your tinnitus. It may be that switching to a different medication or changing the dosage will alleviate the tinnitus.
Tinnitus Due to Hearing Loss
Most cases of tinnitus are accompanied by hearing loss, though some people have tinnitus without hearing loss. It is thought that hearing loss may promote tinnitus because the damaged stereocilia in the inner ear continue to “leak” signals to the brain, presenting the commonly heard “ringing” sound.
In cases where hearing loss and tinnitus are both present, hearing aids are usually an effective treatment for the daytime. Hearing aids, by raising the level of environmental sounds, help to cover up or “mask” the sound of tinnitus. Many hearing aids even have a special tinnitus treatment program that can be engaged when necessary. This can help mask the sound of tinnitus while not obscuring frequencies commonly associated with human speech—so you can cover up the sound of your tinnitus while still being able to hear others speak clearly.
More About Masking
Masking is an effective treatment for tinnitus with or without accompanying hearing loss. Introducing environmental sound can help you to disengage with the sound of your tinnitus. Playing music, turning on a box fan, using a white noise machine, and any other method of introducing sound into your environment at a safe volume can cover up the sound of your tinnitus and make it less annoying.
Counseling for Tinnitus
If you have debilitating tinnitus for which an underlying cause cannot be found, counseling can help you to live more comfortably with your tinnitus. Until a cure is discovered, learning to live with tinnitus will remain the best approach to relieving the stress and anguish that can come with it.