Tinnitus is one of the most common auditory problems, affecting an estimated 50 million American adults. Because its onset, duration, and description vary greatly, most people are unsure of what actually causes the condition. At Associated Hearing Professionals, we see many patients who experience some degree of tinnitus in our offices in Chesterfield and Clayton. Here’s a brief overview of what we tell them about this increasingly common auditory issue.
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. 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.
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 noises can vary in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal, or something in between. These 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.
Contrary to popular belief, tinnitus is neither caused by nor the cause of normal hearing loss. In fact, some people with the condition have normal hearing for their age. Even so, they may experience tinnitus because of infections or blockages in the ear. Once these underlying conditions are treated, the phantom sounds can disappear. Unfortunately, these cases are quite rare, since most cases are permanent and irreversible.
According to hearing experts, up to 90 percent 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 loud noises 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 the phantom sounds.
In a small percentage of cases, tinnitus may be caused by other medical conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, anemia, and even allergies. 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, sleep deprivation, loud noises, alcohol, smoking, and flying. 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.
Quality of Life
Because tinnitus is often a progressive, long-term issue, many patients do not seek 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 there are many effective treatment options that do not involve surgery.
If the problem is caused by an 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. However, because the overwhelming majority of cases involve permanent damage to the auditory system, hearing aids are the most popular 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 instruments allows them to be combined with a masking device that emits a specific noise that can block out the phantom sounds caused by tinnitus.
Contact Us Today
Is tinnitus making it difficult for you to focus or sleep? The audiologists at Associated Hearing Professionals have decades of experience helping patients in the St. Louis area manage tinnitus. Make an appointment with us today.
*Disclaimer: Treatments and outcomes are dependent on an individual patient’s condition.