Tinnitus is a health condition that affects about 15% of the world’s population, often due to hearing loss as a result of aging or prolonged exposure to loud noise or music. That ringing in your ear or head that no one else seems to be able to hear? That’s a form of tinnitus.
For some, tinnitus is only a minor annoyance, but that constant ringing, buzzing, or other sound sensation can make it difficult to sleep, focus on simple tasks, and feel at peace. So for those of you looking for some answers and relief, we’ve got all the necessary info on how tinnitus works, what causes it, how different people experience it, and what treatment options are available, from hearing aids to masking and beyond.
What exactly is tinnitus?
Tinnitus—pronounced tih-NIGHT-us or TIN-ih-tus—is a condition in which patients experience what are referred to as phantom sounds, or ones that are perceived in the brain without an external source.
And although this condition is most commonly associated with a ringing sensation, it can also be experienced as buzzing, clicking, hissing, screeching, pulsing, roaring, or rushing, and can vary by volume, consistency, and pitch. But if these sounds don’t actually exist outside of our heads and can vary drastically from person to person, where do they come from? And why?
Tinnitus & the brain: why are my ears ringing?
Well, the consensus among hearing care professionals is that most tinnitus cases stem from damage to the outer hair cells of the cochlea. This is the spiral-shaped portion of the inner ear—which you can see in the short video below—responsible for turning sound waves into nerve signals. When these cells are no longer able to deliver the appropriate signals, our brains will often attempt to compensate for the missing input, essentially filling in the gaps where it expects to receive sound.
In other words, if our brains are used to hearing sounds at all frequencies, and then one or more of those frequencies goes missing (because the part of our ears responsible for pickup and delivery is no longer doing its job) our brains may attempt to turn up the gain on the missing frequencies to compensate.
The result is tinnitus—that filler, phantom sound—which can range from barely audible to distractingly loud, temporary to chronic, bilateral (in both ears) to unilateral (just in one)—and although the cause may begin with damage to the ear(s), this condition is really a function of the brain.
Common causes and types of tinnitus
Now that we’ve covered the basics of how it works in our brains, let’s explore some of the ways tinnitus is caused in the first place, as well as a few other underlying issues that may lead to ringing in the ears:
- Hearing loss — according to the Mayo Clinic, 90% of tinnitus cases coincide with hearing loss and damage to sensory hair cells in the inner cochlea. This can either be age-related or noise-induced, as a result of a one-time trauma or long-term exposure to loud music or sounds.
*Note: hearing loss may not be immediately noticeable by patients who experience ringing sensations or other phantom sounds, but more often than not, there is some damage causing the tinnitus. Only a hearing test with a trained audiologist can detect the extent of potential hearing loss and help you pinpoint the cause and appropriate treatment options.
- Ear wax build-up or sinus infections — both the build up of ear wax and nasal congestion can cause blockages in your middle that may result in temporary tinnitus. In most cases, recovery from the sinus infection and/or the safe removal of ear wax by your doctor or audiologist will alleviate the tinnitus, but leaving obstructions untreated can cause more permanent damage.
- Ototoxic drugs — certain prescription and over-the-counter medications can trigger tinnitus as a side effect. Some of the most common culprits include NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) like ibuprofen and aspirin, certain antibiotics and cancer medications, water pills and diuretics, and quinine-based medications.
*Note: if you’re concerned that tinnitus may be a side effect of one or more of your medications, consult your subscribing physician or pharmacist before making any changes.
- Blood pressure issues — hypertension (high blood pressure) or anything that raises your blood pressure or constricts your arteries temporarily—stress, caffeine or alcohol consumption, etc.—can cause what’s called pulsatile tinnitus. This is often experienced as a rhythmic pulsing or whooshing in keeping with your blood flow or heartbeat.
This form of tinnitus is often referred to as objective because it can sometimes also be heard by a doctor using a listening device. (This differs from subjective tinnitus, which has no external source and can only be heard by the person experiencing it.)
- Other health conditions — tinnitus can also be a symptom of other underlying health conditions like Ménière’s disease (a disorder of the inner ear), thyroid and hormonal issues, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, TMJ (also known as temporomandibular joint disorder), anxiety, depression, and head or neck injuries.
Because there are so many known causes of tinnitus, speaking with a doctor or professional about your personal experience with tinnitus can help determine the cause and subsequent treatment options available to you.
Tinnitus treatment: hearing aids and beyond
Because tinnitus is not a disease in itself, but rather a condition or symptom of some other underlying issue, treatment needs to be tailored to the cause of each individual case. And while there’s no scientifically-proven cure at the moment, there are a few remedies and therapies that can offer relief, improve quality of life, and make even chronic tinnitus more manageable overall:
- Hearing aids — if your tinnitus stems from damage to the cochlea and is accompanied by hearing loss, as most cases are, hearing aids are often the most sustainable and effective way to reduce tinnitus during the day. By amplifying speech and other environmental sounds, a hearing aid can distract your brain and provide relief from unwanted phantom sounds.
- Sound masking — soft and static sounds from white noise to ocean wave therapy can help mask tinnitus and relax the brain, and can be done via external white noise devices or in-ear devices like hearing aids.
Some hearing aids include more sophisticated sound masking options like notch therapy which, when programmed to the exact pitch or tone of a patient’s tinnitus, can help train the brain to ignore the sound over time.
- Behavioral therapy and stress relief — for those who experience chronic tinnitus, its persistence can cause serious feelings of anxiety and frustration, which often exacerbates the issue. In some cases, this can cause what’s called a tinnitus spike, during which the perceived sound gets louder or more acute.
But we are capable of living with tinnitus, and working with a professional or employing more common stress-reducing activities like yoga, breathing exercises, or daily walks can help manage flare-ups and live more comfortably and productively with the condition. Sometimes, simply allowing the body to relax in the presence of tinnitus can reduce the sensation itself.
Find tinnitus relief with a hearing aid today
If you’re experiencing ringing in the ears or tinnitus of any kind, you deserve to find some relief. And the first step is making an appointment with an audiologist who can administer some hearing tests, help identify the source of your tinnitus, and lay out your treatment options.
Luckily, the experts at hear.com are here to help you do just that. They’re friendly, available to answer any questions you may have about tinnitus or hearing loss, and can help you get the ball rolling by setting you up with an appointment with a quality doctor in your area.
If it turns out that hearing aids are the right treatment option for you, we can also help you try one for free, but all that comes later. In the meantime, call us at (786) 520-2456 or tap the button to sign up and we’ll get in touch with you.