Tinnitus is often described as the presence of a phantom sound that one might perceive in the ears or head in the absence of a real external source of sound. Those with tinnitus often say it sounds like ringing, hissing, buzzing, or roaring within the ears or head.
Tinnitus is a condition that affects up to 50 million Americans, according to the American Tinnitus Association, and its prevalence increases with increasing age. For about 5% of the general population, tinnitus is significant enough to warrant a visit to an audiologist or physician.
What causes tinnitus?
For many, the exact cause of tinnitus cannot be determined. There are many medical and nonmedical factors that appear to cause tinnitus. Medical causes might include tumors, side effects from medications, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, ear disease, hypo and hyperthyroidism and Lyme disease. Some of the non-medical causes include stress ad effects from alcohol and nicotine and noise exposure.
Tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom. A common cause of tinnitus is inner ear hair cell damage. This hair cell damage leads to the release of random electrical impulses in the brain, which, in turn, is perceived as tinnitus.
How is tinnitus treated? Does it require medical or surgical intervention?
There is no cure yet for tinnitus. A person who is experiencing tinnitus should see an audiologist, or their physician to ensure that their tinnitus is not the side effect of a medical condition. For a person who is bothered by tinnitus, the incessant sounds can lead to increased stress levels, sleep deprivation and the inability to concentrate. The goal of treatment is to eliminate these negative side effects by reducing one’s perception of the tinnitus. There is no known medical or surgical treatment for tinnitus. Treatment typically centers on cognitive and behavioral approaches, which focus on the patient’s reactions to their tinnitus and often incorporate some type of sound therapy.
Does tinnitus cause or lead to hearing loss? Can a hearing aid help?
Tinnitus and hearing loss are unrelated; however, there is a high correlation between those with hearing loss and tinnitus. Many individuals who have been exposed to excessively loud noise may suffer from both hearing loss and tinnitus.
Many who have hearing loss and tinnitus will appreciate the benefits that hearing aids may provide. For a person with hearing loss, hearing aids may reduce the negative effects of poor hearing and also reduce one’s awareness of their tinnitus.
Are there other devices that might help?
There are several types of sound-generating devices that can help with tinnitus. The ear-level device is worn much like a hearing aid. It delivers a soothing, low volume sound to the ear and may mask one’s awareness of their tinnitus.
There are also external devices, which present a low-volume appealing sound in an effort to reduce a person’s awareness of tinnitus. There are usually devices, which make sounds like a waterfall, fan, or fountain. These can be especially helpful at bedtime, given that many with tinnitus experience difficulty falling asleep.