What Is Tinnitus?
Over 50 million Americans have experienced tinnitus. Tinnitus is the perception of a sound in the ear without an external sound being present. Tinnitus can be intermittent or continuous. It can be in one or both ears. It can be low pitch, high pitch or have multiple sounds. Although tinnitus is commonly referred to as “ringing”, many people experience sounds that are not ringing—it can be buzzing, crickets, static, or another sound. A certain amount of tinnitus seems to be normal; even healthy ears can occasionally stimulate brief and mild episodes of tinnitus, such as after noise exposure or in a very quiet environment. In fact, up to 60 percent of people with normal hearing will perceive some kind of sound when left in a sound-proof room for several hours. However, if tinnitus is frequent or continuous, is unilateral (heard only in one ear), or is pulsatile in nature (sounds like your heart-beat), the ears should be checked out by your ear, nose, and throat specialist with an ear examination and a complete hearing test.
What Causes Tinnitus?
It can be associated with many conditions. It can be the result of the ear problems such as earwax, ear infections, hardening of the ear bones (otosclerosis), muscle spasms in the middle ear, or hearing loss. It can also be seen with high blood pressure, stress, dental problems, neck problems, depression, and medication side effects. This is why it is best to have your ears evaluated to determine your specific cause.
Tinnitus that sounds like your pulse or heartbeat is known as “pulsatile tinnitus.” While rare, pulsatile tinnitus may signal the presence of cardiovascular disease, narrowed arteries in your head or neck, or a vascular tumor in your head and neck, or ear. If you are experiencing this type of tinnitus, you should consult a physician as soon as possible for evaluation.
How Is Tinnitus Diagnosed?
When diagnosing tinnitus we examine your ears, head, and neck. After an exam these are some standard tests we use:
- Hearing test (audiogram) — In a hearing test, you are placed in a soundproof room and wear headphones. Sounds are piped into the headphones, through one ear at a time. You signal when you can hear the sound and your results are compared to what is considered normal.
- Imaging tests — In some conditions, based on exam and/or hearing test findings a CT or MRI scans may be recommended.
How Can Tinnitus Be Treated?
Many people think that there is no treatment for tinnitus. This is not true! The foundation of tinnitus treatment is treating the underlying cause. For instance, tinnitus may be caused by wax obstructing the ear canal or by fluid behind the ear drum. Both of these problems can be corrected and can result in improvement in tinnitus. Tinnitus is also associated with TMJ problems, stress, anxiety, and depression. These underlying factors must also be addressed for proper management of tinnitus.
Sound therapies that involve simple things like background music or specialized ear maskers may be a reasonable treatment option. The effects of tinnitus on quality of life may also be improved by cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) counseling, which usually involves a series of weekly sessions led by a trained professional.
If you or someone you love suffers from tinnitus, I encourage you to seek an understanding of why it is there and what options exist for treatment. This begins with a trip to an otolaryngologist (ENT doctor), where a thorough ear exam and hearing test can be performed.
Will A Hearing Aid Benefit Me?
The most common cause for tinnitus is age-related hearing loss, which begins as a gradual decreased ability to hear high-pitched noises. Patients with this condition will often perceive a high-pitched sound (because the nerve cells in the brain (neurons) are firing abnormally). Studies have found that almost two-thirds of tinnitus patients experienced at least some degree of relief when wearing hearing aids. Hearing aids boost sounds that can both cover the sound of tinnitus, but can also actually reduce by providing the misbehaving neurons with the stimulation that they have been missing.
When to see a Physician for Tinnitus?
- Does tinnitus make me irritable?
- Does tinnitus interfere with my sleep?
- Does tinnitus make it hard for me to relax?
- Does tinnitus interfere with my enjoyment of life?
- Have I been bothered by tinnitus for more than 50% of my waking hours over the past week?
If you answered “yes” to any of the questions, we recommend an evaluation with one of our physicians.