Tinnitus is one of the most common auditory problems, affecting an estimated 50 million American adults, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Because its onset, duration, and description vary greatly, most people are unsure of what actually causes the condition.
At Associated Hearing Professionals, in our Missouri offices in Chesterfield and Clayton, we see many patients who experience some degree of tinnitus. Here’s a brief overview of what we tell them about this increasingly common auditory issue and tinnitus treatment.
What Is Tinnitus?
Derived from the Latin word tinnire, meaning “to ring,” tinnitus is characterized by a buzzing, hissing, chirping, whistling, or ringing sound in one or both ears. These noises can be occasional or continuous and can vary in volume and tone.
There are four different types of tinnitus, varying in their severity, including:
- Subjective tinnitus
- Objective tinnitus
- Neurological tinnitus
- Somatic tinnitus
Because background noise often blocks out the ringing, tinnitus may only be noticeable in a quiet place. As such, many who suffer from it have difficulty falling asleep at night if their symptoms flare up.
Common Tinnitus Symptoms
No matter how mild or severe their case may be, all people experiencing tinnitus report hearing phantom noises when no external sound is present. These tinnitus symptoms range in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal, or something in between. Sounds may be persistent or intermittent and may grow worse with time.
In extreme cases, a person suffering from tinnitus may be unable to concentrate or may not hear actual sounds due to the phantom noises.
Causes of Tinnitus
Contrary to popular belief, tinnitus is not the cause of age-related hearing loss. In fact, some people with the condition have normal hearing, though tinnitus may be a symptom associated with hearing loss.
While the causes of tinnitus aren’t always 100% known, many people experience this phantom sound phenomenon because of:
Ear infections and blockages
Sometimes, people experience tinnitus because of infections or excessive ear wax in the ear. Once these underlying conditions are treated, the phantom sounds can disappear.
Instances like these, where tinnitus is only a temporary affliction, are quite rare.
Exposure to loud noise
According to hearing experts, up to 90% of patients with tinnitus have some degree of noise-induced hearing loss. This loss of hearing is not responsible for the condition, but prolonged exposure to extremely loud noise does cause permanent damage to the cells in the inner ear, which are very sensitive to sound.
The result is that these areas of the ear no longer function as they should, which causes phantom sounds, like ringing, buzzing, or whooshing.
In a small percentage of cases, tinnitus may be caused by an underlying medical condition, such as:
- High blood pressure
It can also be a symptom of the gradual deterioration of the auditory system during the natural aging process. Patients who sustain severe head and neck injuries may also suffer from either intermittent or continuous tinnitus.
Patients who live with tinnitus often find that a few external factors can cause their symptoms to flare up. A brief list of potential triggers includes:
- Stress and anxiety
- Sleep deprivation
- Loud noises
- Excessive alcohol, caffeine, and sodium
- Ototoxic medications (those that are harmful to the ear)
However, these examples may not apply to each patient. Patients should try to keep a daily journal that tracks what they eat, drink, and do to help detect patterns on the days that tinnitus flares up.
Tinnitus and Your Quality of Life
Because it is often a progressive, long-term issue, many patients do not seek tinnitus treatment until it negatively impacts their quality of life. They may have trouble sleeping at night due to the phantom noises or have difficulty understanding others.
The good news is that treating tinnitus rarely involves surgery.
If the problem is caused by an ear infection or blockage, an experienced audiologist can provide fast and effective care. Treatment options may include removing impacted earwax or providing a medical referral to treat an infection and rule out other medical conditions.
However, because the overwhelming majority of cases involve permanent damage to the auditory system, hearing aids are often the most effective option. These helpful devices make it easier to hear external signals, such as speech, over the internal noises tinnitus sufferers hear.
The technology of current hearing aids allows them to be combined with masking devices that emit a specific noise that can block out the phantom sounds caused by tinnitus. Research from the National Library of Medicine suggests this use of sound therapy is incredibly effective in suppressing tinnitus in some people. There are apps available that can be helpful for patients as well.
Tinnitus Treatment FAQs
Is tinnitus a disease?
No, tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. However, it can indicate underlying conditions or causes that may need attention. If you sense that you might have tinnitus, it’s important to schedule an appointment with our audiologists as soon as possible. We will work with you to uncover the possible cause and determine appropriate treatment options.
Is there a cure for tinnitus?
Currently, there is no universal, known cure for tinnitus. However, treatments and therapies can help reduce or manage the severity of the symptoms.
Is tinnitus permanent?
Tinnitus can be temporary or chronic. Temporary tinnitus may result from short-term exposure to loud sounds and might resolve on its own. Chronic tinnitus persists for longer periods and might require interventions for management.
Can tinnitus be linked to vertigo or dizziness?
Yes, conditions like Meniere’s disease can cause both tinnitus and vertigo. If you experience both symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis. Vertigo can have a negative impact on your quality of life, but seeing your audiologist as soon as possible can help reduce or eliminate symptoms altogether.
Can medications cause tinnitus?
Certain medications, known as ototoxic drugs, are believed to potentially cause or worsen tinnitus. Some common examples include particular antibiotics, diuretics, aspirin in high doses, and certain chemotherapy drugs. Always consult with a doctor about the potential side effects of the medication you are currently taking or plan to take.
Is tinnitus more common in one ear than the other?
Tinnitus can occur in one ear or both. Unilateral tinnitus (tinnitus in one ear) can sometimes be more concerning than bilateral tinnitus, with the Cleveland Clinic reporting its risk of signaling a middle ear tumor. If you’re experiencing tinnitus in just one ear, be sure to visit Associated Hearing Professionals to get assessed.
Are there at-home remedies for tinnitus?
Some people find relief from tinnitus using natural remedies like ginkgo biloba, zinc, or B vitamins. However, the evidence on the efficacy of these remedies is mixed, and it’s crucial to discuss it with your audiologist before starting any supplement.
Other ways to manage tinnitus at home may include:
- Sound generators and masking devices
- Meditation and relaxation techniques
- Progressive muscle relaxation
Get Quality Tinnitus Treatment
Is tinnitus making it difficult for you to focus or sleep? The audiologists at Associated Hearing Professionals have decades of experience helping patients manage their tinnitus.
When you visit our St. Louis or Chesterfield offices, we’ll administer a comprehensive hearing test that will help us to evaluate your tinnitus and potential causes. If you are deemed a candidate for hearing aids, we’ll walk you through options for various types of hearing aids to help you find the right fit.
Find relief from your tinnitus. Make an appointment with our team today.
*Disclaimer: Treatments and outcomes are dependent on an individual patient’s condition.