An estimated 36 million Americans experience a chronic phantom sound in their ears, known as tinnitus. The sound is perceived either in the head or in the ears in the absence of any external source of sound.
An estimated 36 million Americans experience a chronic phantom sound in their ears, known as tinnitus.
The sound is perceived either in the head or in the ears in the absence of any external source of sound. The tone or ringing may last only 10 to 20 seconds, but for the majority of people, it is constant.
Many people adjust to the constant sensation of tinnitus, and it is not bothersome to them. However, 2 to 5 percent of people who have tinnitus find it extremely distressing and bothersome. When severe, tinnitus can lead to problems with sleep, concentration, anxiety, depression and disability.
Tinnitus is much more common as people get older because the two most common causes of tinnitus are age-related hearing loss and noise damage to ears. Hearing loss develops because of the accumulated noise exposure that occurs over the course of a lifetime combined with the aging process.
What are the symptoms?
Many people describe their tinnitus as sounding like crickets or locusts on a summer night. Some say it sounds like a tone or ringing. Others report it as a buzz, hum or roaring sound.
For many people, hearing loss can cause tinnitus. Something more serious like a growth on the hearing and balance nerve or an infection in the ear can also cause tinnitus symptoms. Whenever anyone has new tinnitus or a sound that continues to persist for longer than an hour at a time, an ear, nose and throat doctor can determine if the cause is an ear disease that can be treated.
What causes tinnitus?
The Auditory Research Group at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine is conducting research on tinnitus. We think it comes from damage to the inner ear, which then triggers changes within the auditory pathways of the brain.
Our research has shown that hearing loss, as well as tinnitus, can lead to changes within the nerves and the brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, of the brain. If these altered pathways or chemicals can be better understood, we can develop treatments designed to reverse these changes. Even if we can’t reverse hearing loss, we might be able to alleviate some of the symptoms associated with it, such as tinnitus.
How is tinnitus treated?
A good evaluation by an ear nose and throat doctor and a complete hearing exam are both very important to establish that the tinnitus is a result of aging or noise-induced hearing loss. Hearing aids are very beneficial for tinnitus. Hearing loss causes the brain to work harder to process sounds; this ‘brain strain’ increases the volume of the tinnitus loudness. Hearing aids stimulate the auditory pathway, mask out the tinnitus and trick the brain into turning down the volume of the tinnitus.
If hearing aids are not an option, tinnitus retraining therapy uses both sound therapy and a form of information counseling. Medications may improve tinnitus symptoms for some people, but no drug treatment works for a certain population of people all the time. Herbal supplements, magnet therapy or laser therapy have not been shown to relieve the loudness or annoyance of tinnitus.
What can be done to help prevent tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the result of damaged or loss of function of the microphones of the inner ear, so protecting those microphones is very important. Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most preventable forms of hearing loss and, therefore, a way to prevent tinnitus. Noise exposure accumulates over the course of your lifetime.
Use ear protection when you will be exposed to noise, especially loud sounds of 90 decibels or higher, such as a power saw or a very loud lawn mower. Using these tools hour after hour, week after week and summer after summer damages the microphones of our ear over time. Even though we might be doing all that lawn mowing when we’re in our 20s and 30s, the hearing loss starts to show up when we’re in our 40s and 50s. That’s when the tinnitus becomes more noticeable.
Where do I go for more information?
Dr. Carol Bauer is a professor of otolaryngology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
-- Be Healthy Springfield (Ill.)