"Can you hear that? Don't you hear that??"
If you're getting frustrated by the fact that there are sounds like ringing, buzzing, swishing or roaring that only you can hear, you may have tinnitus. (Similar to the word potato or tomato, tinnitus can be pronounced two ways: as either TIN-ih-tus or tin-EYE-tus.)
Alas, that phantom squealing, clicking, hissing or pulsating sound is reserved for you and you alone.
The subjective noise may be your constant companion—or it may come and go, changing in pitch and volume at will.
Tinnitus is more common than you may think. It affects one in five people and over 50 million Americans. And if you think hearing noises is something to worry about, rest assured, it's usually not serious—although it is bothersome, and, in some cases, it can signify a more serious problem.
Your doctor may diagnose tinnitus with a medical exam, hearing test and/or MRI or CT scan.
What's causing that ringing?
Rather than an actual condition, tinnitus is a symptom related to some underlying condition. It usually happens when the tiny sensory hair cells in your inner ear are injured or damaged. One obvious possibility is damage from repeated exposure to loud noises (think rock concerts or machinery). Other not-so-obvious causes of damage include medications like aspirin and acetaminophen (if taken in large doses), as well as certain diuretics and antibiotics.
Most cases of tinnitus, which affects everyone differently, happen without an identifiable cause (that's known as primary tinnitus). When there's a specific underlying cause that may be treatable, it's known as secondary tinnitus.
Other possible causes:
- Age-related hearing loss
- Meniere's disease
- Injury to your ear
- Disorder of your circulatory system
- Problem with your outer, inner or middle ear
- Problem with the auditory nerves in the part of your brain responsible for interpreting signals as sounds
- TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorder
- High blood pressure
- Lyme disease
- Migraines or other headaches
- Sinus pressure or fluid buildup behind your eardrum
- Hardening of the arteries
- Buildup of ear wax
- Lesions on or around the hearing portion of your brain
Some people experience a type of tinnitus that sounds like their heartbeat or pulse. Known as pulsatile tinnitus, it can sometimes indicate cardiovascular disease or a vascular tumor in the head, neck or ear.
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Side effects of tinnitus
Although it's usually nothing to worry about, tinnitus can cause a lot of worry, stress, anxiety and more.
Even if it's not medically serious, tinnitus can be psychologically serious and have a big effect on the quality of your life. Living with constant noise that only you can hear and that you can't control can play havoc with your emotions, leading to depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, sleep disturbances and difficulty concentrating. And in a cruel twist of fate, these emotions can not only be a result of living with tinnitus, but they can also make the tinnitus worse.
What can be done about tinnitus
If you're still in the honeymoon phase with your tinnitus (you've had it for six months of less), it may improve on its own over time.
While tinnitus can get worse and make hearing more difficult—especially with age—the good news is that in many instances it can improve with treatment (although there's no scientifically proven cure for most cases). Sometimes identifying the underlying cause can help; other times treatments to reduce, manage or mask the noise can make tinnitus easier to live with.
If tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, hearing aids may help. Treatments may eliminate the noise if the cause is a build-up of ear wax, hair or fluid in the middle ear or TMJ.
If there's a health issue causing it, like high blood pressure, getting that under control can help reduce or eliminate the tinnitus.
Sound maskers are electronic devices worn behind the ear that use sound to help make tinnitus less noticeable. If your tinnitus keeps you awake at night, a white noise machine placed near your bed may help.
The American Tinnitus Association stresses the importance of general wellness. Their tips can help alleviate some of the burden that comes with tinnitus :
- Eat a healthy diet
- Socialize with friends and family
- Try biofeedback or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Undergo hypnotherapy
- Protect your hearing (if you also have sound sensitivity) with ear muffs, ear plugs, etc.
Research into more treatments for tinnitus is ongoing, with much of it focusing on the neural networks involved in the condition. Click here for a helpful Patient Navigator from the American Tinnitus Foundation.