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Although an estimated 15 to 20 percent of Americans experience persistent ringing in their ears – called tinnitus – it is still vastly misunderstood. In fact, many people don’t even know it exists!
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the term for the sensation of hearing a sound in the absence of any external sound. That is, hearing a ringing sound, when there is no actual sound present. The single symptom of tinnitus is this ever-present “phantom” ringing sound. The noise of tinnitus may vary in pitch from low to high, and it may be heard in one or both ears. It may be constantly present, or it may come and go. The noise may be heard as a ringing, buzzing, whooshing, chirping, or roaring sound.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus isn’t actually a condition itself, rather it is often a symptom of an underlying condition. Tinnitus may develop as a result of a number of conditions or circumstances, and in many cases, an exact cause of tinnitus is never found. Most often, tinnitus develops as a result of an existing hearing loss.
Some of the most common causes of tinnitus include:
Age-related hearing loss
For many people, hearing worsens with age, usually starting around age 60. The medical term for age-related hearing loss is presbycusis. This type of hearing loss may result in the development of tinnitus.
Exposure to loud, damaging noise
Exposure to loud noises, such as those from heavy equipment, firearms, or power tools are common sources of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Like age-related hearing loss, NIHL may also lead to tinnitus. Short-term noise exposure, such as attending a loud sporting event or concert, may cause temporary tinnitus. However, both short- and long- term exposure to noise can cause permanent hearing damage.
When too much earwax builds up in the ear canal, it can become too hard to wash away naturally, causing hearing loss and irritation of the ear drum. This impacted earwax can prevent sound waves from reaching the inner ear and cause temporary tinnitus.
Ear bone changes
Otosclerosis, or stiffening of the bones in the middle ear, may affect hearing and lead to the development of tinnitus. This condition is often caused by abnormal bone growth and tends to run in families.
There are many less-common causes of tinnitus, including
- Meniere’s disease
- Ototoxic prescription drugs
- Traumatic head and neck injury
- Temporomandibular Disorder (TMJ)
- Traumatic brain injury
- High blood pressure
- Acoustic neuroma
- Eustachian tube dysfunction
What can I do about the ringing in my ears?
Fortunately, tinnitus usually isn’t a sign of something serious, but it can certainly be a serious annoyance. In some cases, the sound can be so loud it can interfere with one’s ability to concentrate or hear external sound. Like hearing loss, tinnitus symptoms can worsen with age.
Although there is no known cure for tinnitus, symptoms may be greatly reduced with treatment. In many cases, treating an identified underlying cause of tinnitus can help to relieve tinnitus symptoms. In other cases, treatments help to reduce or mask the noise, making tinnitus less noticeable.
Because tinnitus is often developed as a result of an existing hearing loss, the use of hearing aids may help. Augmenting the reception and perception of sounds can help provide relief from the internal sounds of tinnitus. Sound and behavior therapies, among other treatments, have been shown to help provide relief. Many patients also notice that their general wellness can have an impact on the intensity of their tinnitus symptoms. (Read more about tinnitus treatment options here.)
Do I have tinnitus?
When evaluating tinnitus cases, audiologists use a supplemental set of tests. While there is currently no way to objectively test for tinnitus, there are several protocols to measure the patient’s subjective perception of tinnitus sound, pitch, and volume.
If you’re experiencing constant ringing in your ears, contact Whisper Hearing Centers for help. Our compassionate audiologists work with patients every day who are struggling with tinnitus, and they understand how frustrating it can be. You don’t have to suffer through tinnitus symptoms alone. Give us a call today to schedule an appointment.