Millions of people experience tinnitus – but why? There are many causes of tinnitus, and it may be a symptom of treatable medical conditions. Understand the perception of tinnitus, its causes, and available treatments to help alleviate the symptoms.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the perception of sound – often described as a buzzing, hissing, chirping, humming, or ringing in the ears – when no external source is present. Tinnitus can be experienced in one or both ears or perceived as a vague sound somewhere in your head. For some people tinnitus is a temporary nuisance, but for others, it can be a long-lasting bothersome condition that has a tremendous impact on daily life.
Is Tinnitus A Disease Or A Symptom?
By definition, a symptom indicates a medical condition or disease as characterized by a particular set of signs. Injuries, illnesses, medications, or environmental factors can all contribute to symptoms of medical conditions.
Tinnitus can exist without any other factors or known health conditions, making it an independent condition. It is not, however, considered a disease and it’s not contagious.
Is There Always An Underlying Cause?
Tinnitus can manifest as a symptom or as a solitary condition. It often results from hearing changes, ear problems, and loud noise exposure. In some cases, your perception of tinnitus may be hereditary.
Sometimes, people experience tinnitus for no known reason. However, there’s usually a condition that causes it. Even if your hearing test comes back normal, there may be other parts of your hearing system that aren’t working properly. A standard hearing test measures a lot of things, but it can’t measure everything. There are some specialized tests that can provide information about higher frequencies of hearing, the health of your hair cells in your inner ear, and your auditory nerve. These tests aren’t indicated for everyone, but they may provide more information in certain circumstances. Speak to your doctor about identifying and treating the root cause of tinnitus can decrease or even eliminate symptoms.
The Relationship Between Tinnitus and Different Parts of the Body
The perception of tinnitus is complex and may involve a range of different parts of your body. Different parts of your ear, the way your brain perceives sound, and even your blood flow can contribute to tinnitus.
Outer Ear and Ear Canal
Tinnitus can be caused by external ear or ear canal problems like wax buildup, illness and infections, or physical damage. Swelling, foreign objects, swimmer’s ear, and many more outer ear afflictions can lead to tinnitus. In many cases, however, the ringing sound in your ears has its roots in the inner ear or central auditory system.
Tinnitus is sometimes caused by a progressive condition called otosclerosis. Inside the middle ear, there are tiny bones that help conduct sound. With otosclerosis, these bones become fused and are no longer able to vibrate properly. This prevents soundwaves from reaching the inner ear, leading to hearing loss that is often accompanied by tinnitus.
Other middle ear conditions – like ear infections, negative pressure buildups, or abnormal growths – may also contribute to tinnitus.
From sensorineural (permanent) hearing loss to Meniere’s disease and damage to the cochlea’s delicate hair cells, tinnitus often indicates a condition affecting the fragile structures of the inner ear. Meniere’s disease is a condition characterized by tinnitus, dizziness, feelings of fullness in the ear, vertigo, and hearing loss that may come and go. The hair cells and membranes of the cochlea can be damaged by loud noise exposure.
Tinnitus can also develop due to conditions that affect the auditory nerve, like an acoustic neuroma – a growth that develops on the auditory nerve. This nerve sends signals from your inner ear to your brain and is responsible for your hearing. An acoustic neuroma can lead to hearing loss, tinnitus, and vertigo, but is typically benign.
Brain changes can impact the auditory nerve or your perception of sound. Tinnitus is often recognized as a symptom of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. In the event of an injury to the head or neck, brain injury frequently leads to tinnitus and hearing loss.
In some cases, problems with blood flow can lead to tinnitus. Atherosclerosis is a disorder in which plaque accumulates in the arteries, ultimately diminishing circulation throughout the body. Atherosclerosis can impact your hearing, leading to tinnitus. This type of tinnitus, called pulsatile tinnitus, is perceived as a throbbing that’s synchronized with your pulse. This less-common type of tinnitus can often be managed by treating heart conditions
Causes of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is a common symptom for a wide range of conditions. Various factors, including hearing loss, ear infections, medications, and environmental factors can lead to tinnitus. Some conditions are very common and some are more rare.
Yes, a middle ear infection may certainly lead to tinnitus. This is because the inflammation and fluid accumulation that comes with such infections can damage the auditory system temporarily or permanently. If you are prone to chronic ear infections, your chances of developing tinnitus are increased.
Hearing loss is the biggest cause of tinnitus. In fact, as many as 90% of people with hearing loss experience tinnitus. Tinnitus is frequently caused by hearing loss due to damaged hair cells in the inner ear. When these hair cells are impaired, they can no longer send sound waves to your brain. Instead, these nerves generate noises that present as tinnitus symptoms.
Loud Noise Exposure
Loud noise can cause tinnitus either temporarily or indefinitely. It can potentially harm the hair cells in our inner ear, often resulting in hearing loss and a ringing sensation in the ears. Protecting your ears from loud noises is essential to avoid developing tinnitus or worsening its symptoms. However, overuse of hearing protection in situations where noise is not hazardous can increase sensitivity to sound and make tinnitus worse. Talk to your audiologist about appropriate hearing protection for you.
While tinnitus is more common in older adults, it’s not an expected side effect of aging. As we age, our hearing capabilities may decrease, raising the likelihood of experiencing tinnitus or making it more noticeable. You can reduce your risk of developing bothersome tinnitus by protecting your ears from damage and exposure to loud noises.
Earwax buildup can lead to tinnitus if it blocks the ear canal or applies pressure on the eardrum. Removing this wax from your ears is proven to assist in relieving and even eliminating any associated tinnitus symptoms you may have. Earwax removal should be done safely by a professional, and not by inserting cotton swabs as these can compact the wax or damage your ears.
Diagnosing and Treating Tinnitus
If you experience bothersome tinnitus, the first step is to seek medical advice. Your doctor may perform a hearing test to determine the cause of your symptoms. Identifying and treating underlying conditions can often reduce or eliminate the signs associated with these conditions. Additionally, therapeutic strategies like tinnitus retraining therapy, cognitive behavioral techniques, and sound therapies are known to help manage your perception of that ringing in your ears.
Is There an Effective Treatment for Tinnitus?
Several treatments are available to alleviate the effects of tinnitus. Medical professionals first attempt to diagnose and treat any underlying causes; then, therapies such as tinnitus retraining, cognitive behavioral, and sound therapy aim to ease associated perceptions. In some scenarios, antidepressants or antianxiety medication may be prescribed to help ease tinnitus-related distress. You audiologist may also recommend a consultation with other healthcare professionals who can help you. For example, some people with temporomandibular joint issues (TMJ) and tinnitus may benefit from a consultation with a dentist or dental specialist.
Various strategies can help relieve the symptoms of tinnitus. Identifying and treating underlying conditions, reducing exposure to loud noise, managing stress through relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, which can exacerbate tinnitus symptoms, using hearing aids or tinnitus maskers, practicing good sleep hygiene, and seeking out counseling or therapy to help manage the emotional impact of tinnitus.
What is Tinnitus Retraining Therapy?
Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) is a revolutionary approach that combines the power of sound and counseling to reduce your perception of tinnitus. This cutting-edge technique teaches your brain to ignore intrusive noises, ultimately preventing them from causing you distress or discomfort. By exploring TRT, you can drastically improve how you manage tinnitus in the short and long term!
Tinnitus is a complex condition with various causes and treatments. While there is no known cure, understanding the condition and implementing the right strategies can help alleviate the symptoms and improve your overall quality of life. If you experience tinnitus, reach out to the audiologists at Treble Health for symptom management techniques. Speak to your physician to determine the cause of your symptoms and to explore available treatment options.
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- American Tinnitus Association. (2021). What is Tinnitus? Retrieved from https://www.ata.org/understanding-facts/about-tinnitus
- Mayo Clinic. (2021). Tinnitus. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tinnitus/symptoms-causes/syc-20350156
- National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. (2021). Tinnitus. Retrieved from https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/tinnitus
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